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Anecdotes: The Beggar's Gift

A tale of bums, faces and the connections between them…

By John D. Casnig

Nestled in the highest mountains of Serendip is the sprawling town of Nuwara Eliya. You may know the more familiar names of Serendip - Ceylon or Sri Lanka - but may not know the other name for Nuwara Eliya: A place I once called “home”.

It was late in the year 1979 – a year later made famous by the Smashing Pumpkins in a song of the same name. American president Jimmy Carter was dividing his attentions between the Iranian Hostage Crisis and his brother Billy’s homeland antics: Certainly he was too busy to be in Nuwara Eliya. “The Empire Strikes Back” was in production as well, making the cast and crew far too unavailable to drop by my little town for a visit.

In fact, on the one day of which I now impress upon the page, no one was around, save the bare bum of an old, homeless beggar that greeted me in the chilling fog of morning. At the other end of this buttocks lay an unawakened smile – and a consequent lifetime of effect – both of which I will convey to you in order of appearance. But first, allow me to introduce you to the setting.

Nuwara Eliya sits beside a small, peaceful lake and surrounds itself with steep tea plantations and rounded, muddy mountains. Fog rises and falls in a vaporous tide, cyclically rendering an etheric quality, then replacing it with the hard lines of reality. On the peak of the highest mountain, Pidurutalagala, one may enjoy the mutual pleasure and peril of standing on the edge of the Earth as land abruptly terminates and cloudy sky begins.

The smells of wood smoke, rice and curry prevail in Nuwara Eliya, with dashes of diesel following each of the many buses spider-webbing the village and area. Radios blare (as is the tradition in the tropics; it seems), interjected in volume only by the many abused horns of passing vehicles. Each auto cuts a new path through a sea of heads, the horn pushing aside pedestrians like so much flotsam, which reconverges in the car's wake.

All around, everywhere you look, people are wearing saris or sarongs. This is important to my story – already the victim of much digression – as it is quite commonplace for men to have their sarong as their sole unit of clothing. Bear in mind that attitudes respecting public nudity are considerably unfavourable; thus one may find it prudent to tie their sarong with the equivalent of a double knot.

This certainly would’ve been a good idea for the poor young man who decided, as many there do, to step off of a moving bus at one of its so-called stopping points. The problem was that his sarong disagreed with his disembarkment, attaching itself to some protrusion at the doorway of the bus. “Ating! Ating! Ating! Ating!” he shouted, pounding on the bus against the roar of its diesel engine. What choice he had was epic in nature – public nudity or severe scuffs and scrapes - humbling or hurting. He would select the latter.


While an urgent message fired from the rear of the bus to its driver, another, even more urgent message fired from the young man's rear to his head. The brakes applied and the danger nipped in the bud, the many onlookers felt free to react as nature would have it.

But despite an otherwise common consensus, the situation was apparently not at all funny to the star attraction himself. With his ego bruised by the laughter and attention, and his minor scuffs and scrapes to retell the story for years to come, he angrily stomped from public view and into anecdote. He taught me just how much one may value the privacy of their privates: They may undoubtedly value them over life and limb.

Which leads us back to the old man’s bum. Sort of.

I was on my way to work that day - a day indistinguishable from any other: First to attend my piping hot cup of sickly-sweet and creamy morning tea (drank at a pace otherwise only seen at chug-a-lug competitions), and then to the bus leading me to my work high on the nearby slopes. I rarely took the bus back, favouring a barefooted slide down the steep, greasy, moist clay furrows at the sides of each plantation. One had to be alert when “tea-skiing”; as slopes were often abruptly truncated by mountain roads that would approach at an alarming rate of speed. One’s life, when tea-skiing, is entirely dependant on the judicious use and precise control of their bum. It is, a tea-skier knows, an end to a means.

The beggar did not apply his rear in such a way, but it did work for him, however unintentionally. You see, as I was about to walk into the teahouse on that chilly morning, destined for my unusual day, there it was, as if staring right at me, the prone bum of an old man – a greeting to end all greetings. I tittered my way into the shop and hastily lapped up my morning brew.

As I stepped out ready for a rejuvenation of my snigggering, there he was again; but this time awake and begging for food. “Bat kan”, uttered the dirty, rippled puddle of a soul, with a voice barely above a whisper. His hands spoke in unison a standard gesticulation of food and hunger, pinching imaginary rice into his mouth. “Podack inneh”, I replied, awkwardly telling him to “wait a minute”. I had an idea.

I went back into the teahouse and asked for a “Special Chocolate Cream Bun”. This was no ordinary treat. This was wrapped with the care afforded by only the best-of-the-best chocolate cream buns. A royalty of desserts far out of the reach of the ordinary patron - including myself. I had figured that the best I could ever give him would be temporary in its physical value; yet I wanted to give him something of lasting worth.

I presented his gift – a gift I was afraid would go misinterpreted: the gift of being served by another: the gift of dignity and respect. For that moment, and in future recollections, this man would be king. Not ignored, nor derided; but actually treasured. He, who only possessed one mere, dirty, threadbare sarong and nothing more, would be served "breakfast in bed".

A rich, warm smile divided his face into two parts – perhaps as large and toothless as the one on his buttocks – as my message was received beyond my greatest hopes. He would impart a far more lasting gift upon me. The countless emerging folds of his face suddenly flashed a simultaneous library of tales; unhinging my mistaken belief that he was in need of dignity at all. Quite the contrary – it seemed he had done all he could to rid himself of it. His smile was that of one who was already happy; and who had been for some time.

You see, in the few minutes I had taken for my morning tea, I unwittingly came to precisely half of an epiphany. I thought about how cold the old man would need to be in order to leave his backside exposed - favouring the coverage of even more susceptible parts. He did not have cushioning against the cold, hard cement that was his bed. He was precisely one sarong from having absolutely nothing in this world but himself

Perhaps I should note that Sri Lanka is not only largely Buddhist, but that it is so very Buddhist that the philosophy represents part of the small country’s proposed constitution. Buddha even spent some of his time there; leaving various parts of his physical being in what are now shrines. Buddha also had a goal – to rid himself of desire and possessions- to embody nothingness. It occurred to me that this man was a short step away from being everything Buddha believed achievable for a living human. He was evidently more Buddha-like than any monk at any monastery I’d ever seen. 

But the other half of my epiphany would come from this man’s smile - burned into my mind for over two decades now. How such a relatively small and temporary token could make one so completely happy would serve to remind me that to be without desire is to be infinitely rich – one has all they desire. To be so humble as to be without pride or dignity at all – finding offerings of such things to be as gifts – is to be resilient to any form of abasement or humiliation the world may cast toward one. His wrinkly bum spoke not a tale of the withering decline of an old man, but of the power one may have over expectation and desire. No room for shame, fear or disappointment, no need to cast stones or enlightenment: a simple, perfect, living example of the Buddhist doctrine in beggar form.

In the years to come, I would find a connection between my tea-skiing, the young man from the bus and the beggar. While I would seek further adventures by flying by the seat of my pants, the young man sought refuge from flying by the seat of his pants. And had that bus-bound fellow met up with this old man only a few steps and days apart, he might've been less concerned with saving his face, and more concerned with saving his rear-end.

Lesson learned: Dignity may help you save face momentarily, but it will wear you down in the end.

Well, thanks to this reminiscing, now I’m all bummed out!




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