Long ago in a busy city in India there lived a shopkeeper and a beggar. The beggar had his post near the shop that sold all kinds of mouth-watering sweets – colourful crisp jalebis, golden mysorepas, crunchy coconut burfis succulent gulab jamuns et al. By and large the shopkeeper ignored the beggar. He often wished that the beggar would choose some other spot to beg in since he thought his ragged dirty look spoiled the ‘view’ of the shop.
The shop was located by the side of the busy market road along which carts drawn by stubborn bullocks trundled by. Hawkers sold all kinds of attractive things – glass bangles in myriad hues, brightly painted bamboo flutes, marigold garlands, fragrant strings of jasmine slivers of cinnamon and essence of other spices, rangoli powders in magenta, blood red and aquamarine.
In the midst of this riot sat the neat little sweet shop, a little aloof a little apart from it all. Anyone who passed by invariably went in and bought something. It was irresistible. The shopkeeper tolerated the beggar. He said nothing. He could not, since the beggar was no trouble at all.
The customers who bought sweets from the shop often gave the beggar some loose change to assuage their conscience and thus it was a lucrative spot for the beggar. The shop attracted a large number of customers through the day as the fare was delicious and the shop was always clean and well maintained. Added to this was the fact that the shopkeeper was always polite and deferential when he attended to customers.
Though they had been neighbours so to speak for ages, the shopkeeper and the beggar never exchanged a word. Sometimes they exchanged looks. The shopkeeper glared. The beggar looked longingly at the sweets. That was all.
Life went on this way when one day, the shop was filled with the delicious aroma of freshly made gulab jamuns. A large tub of the wine coloured balls floating in fragrant sugar syrup was displayed on the counter. This time the beggar couldn’t resist. He went and spoke to the shopkeeper.
“Will you give me a couple of gulab jamuns, please?”
“I sell them for good money. I don’t give them away for free. You willing to buy?”
The beggar said nothing. He could not dream of wasting money on something as fancy as gulab jamuns. He had a family to feed. But throughout the day he watched as customer after customer bought the jamuns.
Sometime later a customer gave him a coin.
“Thank you, Sir,” said the beggar. “Did you buy gulab jamuns from the shop?”
“Yes,” said the man. He had a handlebar moustache and a pot belly. He wore large rings of different colours on all the ten fingers of his hand. He looked closely at the beggar and asked, “Why did you ask?”
“It’s nothing Sir. But you are a very kind and generous man. But the shopkeeper is also a very upright man. So I’m in a dilemma…” The beggar’s voice trailed away. He seemed very confused and looked down and would not meet Pot Belly’s eyes.
Pot Belly had half turned and was about to leave but now he turned and stood facing the beggar.
“What is it, good man? Tell me.”
“It’s not anything that is of great importance really… the shopkeeper is an honest and hardworking man. And you know Sir, it is not right to tell others something that was shared in confidence, something that only I know.”
The beggar looked uncomfortable. His gnarled hand shifted a few coins this way and that on the dirty rag that was spread out in front of him. He hugged his bony dark knees and wedged his large bulbous nose in between.
Now Pot Belly sat on his haunches in front of the beggar and spoke in a kind fatherly voice, “Now look here, my good man. You shouldn’t have any hesitation in telling me because any secret that is told to me remains locked in my heart forever. Do not fear.” He thumped his chest forcefully and the flesh under the red silk kurta jiggled.
The beggar said, “It was nothing…actually. It was at the bottom of the tub.”
“And it was very very tiny.”
“Must have somehow slipped through the lid…”
“…when the shopkeeper was attending to other customers.”
“What slipped in?”
“Normally it doesn’t happen. But sometimes these creatures beat the most vigilant of men.”
“This morning I saw the shopkeeper take out a small dead mouse from the tub of gulab jamuns and throw it outside.”
“Oh God!” Pot Belly looked at the packet in his hand with horror.
“But you know it was very small…” Before the beggar could finish his sentence Pot Belly had dropped the packet he was carrying and hurried away.
Within the hour customers to the sweet shop dwindled. By mid-afternoon the shopkeeper was sitting idly at the counter and swatting flies with his coconut husk fly whisk. Not a soul entered his shop. He kept glancing at the beggar suspiciously.
As evening came the beggar rolled up his rag and prepared to go home. The shopkeeper came out and spoke to him.
“Let’s make a deal. Every day whenever a fresh sweet is made in my shop, you get to eat it first and for free. In return you will not spread lies about my shop to my customers.”
“Deal,” smiled the beggar and walked away.
From that day on, whenever a sweet was made the first one to taste it was the beggar. Both shopkeeper and beggar prospered.
More interesting tales in the Folk Tales section of this blog.