The Ragpickers and the Lady
By Tom Calarco
The night comes all too soon, shutting down the light that gives life to all, the lesson we experience throughout our lives, the lesson we sometimes forget because the light is such a wondrous, precious thing. In the holy city of Kathmandu, the light had once again been shrouded by the night.
“Sing!” Ram cried into the darkness.
The boy opened his eyes. He froze. He had just seen his friend, Sing, who had recently died after eating chicken from a garbage bin. Or so it had seemed. Now all he saw was the shadowy figure of the elephant god Ganesh above.
Below the statue, his brother Raj slept in a potato sack with Sidd, the old shepherd dog of Krishna, the blind old man who was the caretaker of the temple.
“Raj!” Ram cried and shook his brother.
“I saw Sing!” Ram said. “He was here, right next to me.”
“Go back to sleep, Ram . . . it was a dream.”
Ram quivered, closed his eyes, and drifted off . . .
“The sun is rising, boys,” said Krishna said.
Ram felt his brother shaking him. Slowly, he slipped out of his sack as the gaunt, gray bearded Krishna, wearing only a turban and a dhoti, rang the temple bells. Soon the people would come. The boys put away their sacks and took their work buckets. They would load them with metal and plastic from the city dump with other ragpickers and take it to the Sahu in exchange for money.
Outside the temple, the jagged, snowy peaks of the Himalayas stabbed the sky. Everything else seemed small and common. Ram never tired of looking at them. He vowed to someday climb one, and maybe join the Sherpas. Yes, someday, he would look down from the world’s icy roof like one of the Gods.
Before heading to the dump, the boys stopped in Durbar Square to see Punya, the food vendor.
“Good morning, young sirs,” she said, as she unloaded baskets of food onto mats in the open area surrounded by temples and stone godheads. “Vishnu is with us today. I have some nice bananas for you.”
Punya, a woman whose wide face was smooth and rosy cheeked as a young girl, reached into a basket and fished out two brown bananas. The boys devoured them. Punya laughed.
“You must be growing very fast,” she said, and gave each a slice of fresh coconut.
“That is all for today,” she said.
It was not enough, but they were ready for the dump. Not going meant begging for coins, a very uncertain prospect that could mean waiting to eat until Krishna’s evening bowl of rice. At the dump, they usually could rely on getting something to trade. As they walked barefoot along the dirty street, they took little notice of the holy men, the sacred cows, the squealing monkeys, and the anxious rickshaw cyclers. It was all so common to them, as were the packs of mean and homeless dogs.
Turning into a cobblestone byway, they entered a network of narrow streets. Lined with two and three-story brick tenements occupied by small retail shops, the streets progressed like a maze. Following the many turns, the boys were led to a dirt road that ended at the dump. Men, boys, even little girls were scavenging. The brothers picked a section and crouched down. They rummaged through shreds of clothing, strips of paper, shards of glass, broken trinkets, and parts of machinery—the remains of so many forgotten people all squashed together and piled in heaps.
Copper and brass were the most highly sought after, aside from gold, of course. But no one they knew had ever found gold in the dump, though there was a story of a little girl who found a gold ring with a chipped ruby. Her mother supposedly used it to buy a farm in the fertile plain not far from their father’s farm.
Two years had passed since they ran away from their father. Their mother had died suddenly. A vein broke in her brain, a doctor said. Their father remarried a rich widow who hated them, but certainly not as much as they hated her.
After several hours of scavenging, the boys became restless. Though their buckets were not yet half full, they had gathered enough metal to pay for a meal and decided to go to the Sahu. As they shuffled through the debris, Raj cried out, and stumbled to the ground, holding his foot.
“Look!” Ram shouted, his eyes drawn to the area where Raj had stumbled.
A chunk of golden metal had been revealed. He reached under it into the debris and pulled out more chunks of golden metal. They were pieces of a broken Buddha. The brothers squealed with joy. They had learned to identify brass and copper, but this metal had a smoother, softer surface. Perhaps gold.
“Vishnu is with us today, Ram,” said Raj, who took one of the pieces and rubbed it on his toe, making it feel somehow better.
Their commotion alerted a group of other boys in the junkyard. They rushed towards them. Raj gathered the pieces and wrapped a rag around them as the older boys surrounded them.
“What did you find you, little dog?” shouted a boy about 13 who appeared to be their leader, or guru, as boys commonly called those most respected among them. “What’s under that rag?”
“It is not your concern,” Raj said.
“Are you too greedy to share it with your friends?”
Raj did not answer. The guru stepped closer.
“Let me see it.”
Raj handed Ram the rag.
“Run, Ram, run,” he shouted.
Ram didn’t know which way to go. Like a scared rabbit, he scooted around the older boys. He was quicker but not faster. They caught Ram, punched his face, kicked him in the belly, and gave the prize to their guru.
A little later, sore and hungry, Ram trudged behind Raj to the Hotel Annapurna. A two-story building with a gateway leading to a circular loading area, the hotel was always busy. Rickshaw tricycles and taxis lined the circle, a cigarette lady stood behind a cart, and a vendor displayed trinkets. Nearby was Nirula’s ice cream shop where beggars always assembled. They saw a friend, eating an ice cream cone.
“Kesab,” Raj called.
Kesab stared at them from behind the luscious scoop of chocolate ice cream.
“Ram, what happened to your eye?”
“A gang beat him,” Raj said.
“We found a gold Buddha and I tried to run away so they wouldn’t get it,” Ram said.
Kesab shook his head.
“Perhaps your luck will be better here,” Kesab said. “A new group of Americans has arrived. A nice tourist lady bought me this ice cream. Would you like a lick?”
The brothers each took one. Ram had not tasted anything so wonderful since a tourist lady bought him an ice cream so many months ago.
“Look, a bus,” Raj said.
A bus turned into the gateway and the caravan of beggar boys ran to meet it. The boys gawked at the sleepy tourists as they got off with their baggage. But there were many beggars and the tourists passed quickly for fear of becoming surrounded. Ram and Raj moved away from the crowd and walked along the sidewalk outside the gate. They saw a nicely dressed woman with white hair and a friendly smile.
“No fahter, no muhter, no money,” they chanted in English.
The lady stopped and examined Ram’s eye. She said something they could not understand.
“No fahter, no muhter, no money,” they repeated.
The lady, who looked too young to have white hair, peered down where a vendor was selling hot food. She led them to the stand and bought them some Chicken Curry. With the vendor translating, she told them her name was Angela and that she would be in Kathmandu for two weeks.
“Maybe we will meet again,” she said.
Perhaps their karma was changing; perhaps, someone would buy them an ice cream too.