Anecdotes: The Beggar's Gift
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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".
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.
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.
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.
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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