A dead body lay abandoned near a dhaba, adjacent to Jagat
theatre in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area. Seated by the side of the body was the
deceased’s daughter, Gudia — she was napping, leaning against the dilapidated
semi-moss milestone with her head resting on her tiny palm. Briefly, she would
yawn, rub her eyes and look at the nearby mosque. From behind the Red Fort, the
yellow rays of the morning sun gleamed on her vulnerable face, reminding,
rather commanding her to begin the day’s work.

Gudia, seven or eight years old, stood up. Her father was
never late at work and taught her to be punctual. She had to reach the near-by
Sunahri Masjid and beg for a few coins to have a cup of tea from Bismillah tea
stall, popularly called Ustad Chaiwale — a nickname for his mastery in making
and serving quality tea, fast.

Gudia’s proficient father, Kallu, had already taught her the
tricks of the trade — begging in this case. She knew her routine work but
something encouraged her to take liberty on account of her father’s absence.
Instead of going to the mosque, she would first take tea and then go begging.
She went to Ustad’s tea stall and asked for a cup. Still standing, Gudia waited
for Ustad’s usual rebukes, “Go away….Let the Maulvi Sahib or his companions
have tea first…First sale of the day must begin with pious people, not a thug
like you.” She had grown indifferent to such abuses. But today things were
different. Ustad did not chide her. Instead he compassionately said, “Come
along, my baby.” He lifted her up, kissed her and ran his hand affectionately
on her head before making her sit. “Why this?” thought Gudia.

Unknown tears flowed from her eyes and made their way
through the narrow dry lines that had appeared on her plump cheeks after
wailing the night before. Her lower lip pushed out; her nose widened a little
in her effort to control the tears. Cleaning her nose with her handcuff she
rose to retreat from the smoke-stained stall. She could not bear sympathy; she
was simply not used to it and she did not deserve it. But Ustad fondled her and
made her sit again. He gave her a glass of water and one big brown loaf to eat.

Gudia would not spend her penny for the loaf. Her father had
lessoned her to save money. “I don’t want the loaf, Ustad,” she mumbled in a
broken voice.  She told him that she only
wanted tea and had no money to spend on bread. But she realised that her father
was dead now and that she was a free bird. She would take whatever she liked.
Nobody would admonish or thrash her. She would take the loaf and tea and puri
and halwa and whatever she liked. She had money. Her father had handed her the
small red clothe-bag — his one-day savings — before his death.

Even as Gudia was provided tea and loaf, Maulvi Sahib
arrived ordering a cup in a flat, phlegmatic voice. His blue-stripped muffler,
which was tightly wrapped around his heavy head coupled with a blanket covering
him from head to toe, gave the man an otherwise ghostly look. Gudia stood and
intended to get back to work. Maulvi Sahib asked, “O daughter of an
imposter…Where is Kallu? Why did he not come to beg today?”

“He is no more,” answered Gudia in an indifferent tone.
After a short interval, cogitating, she said, “My father had told me before his
death to go to Maulvi Sahib’s mosque every morning… He will always give you
coins. Now I will be coming to your mosque every morning.”   Maulvi Sahib knew she was lying like her
father. But she was so small, so vulnerable, and at that time looked so cute
with her face dry and brown hair tousled, that something unusual had happened
to her.

Ustad informed, “Kallu had one crumpled blanket with holes
all around…The wretch could not save himself from the cold wind that blew last
night.” Maulvi Sahib murmured something in alien language. Ustad then added
pleadingly, “He left no amount for his last rites…Except this poor creature.”

“No problem, our men will do that”, said Maulvi Sahb asking
his companions around to arrange for Kallu’s funeral in the nearby graveyard.
He then headed for the chowk with a few others, along with Gudia, as passers-by
started assembling.

There were murmurs about her father’s last rites. One from
the crowd, who appeared to be a doctor from attire, said he needed a cadaver
and he was ready to pay money for it to his child. Looking at Gudia, he said,
“I will take care of her. Give her shelter.” The doctor held her tiny palm and
gave her a 500 rupee note to buy her assent. Before Gudia could say anything,
the Maulvi Sahib intervened, “Who are you to claim the body? We have arranged
for the burial at the nearby graveyard. Go away”.

The Punditji, who had been till then silent, objected to
this and informed the crowd about Kallu’s affiliation to the Hindu faith. “For
the last several years, he had been paying obeisance to gods and goddesses
outside Hanuman temple.” This infuriated Maulvi Sahib’s companions. “Don’t make
a fuss of it. Think of the poor child,” intervened the doctor. The dreaded
doctor played a trick and urged the crowd to allow Gudia to take a decision
about her father’s last rites.

People in the crowd, now divided into groups, were each
putting claims on the corpse. Soon the atmosphere turned tensed, leading to an
altercation before the police arrived there to take control of the situation.
The police carefully listened to the religious heads and then to the little
wretch. Meanwhile, one of the policemen came to Gudia and then asked her name.

He went on to take further details to get a clue of her
religion.

“What is your father’s name?”

“Kallu,” answered Gudia.

“What is your mother’s name?”

“Don’t know”.

“Where do you live?”

“On the street.”

“Has your father left anything for you?”

Gudia handed him the big clothe-bag, the only asset her
father left for her. The policeman emptied the bag in a huff but found nothing
there to drive any conclusion from the items — a bruised aluminum bowl, a
crumpled skull-cap and a saffron sheet printed with swastikas stuffed were all
there was.  Clueless, the policemen sat
for a while in silence then asked Gudia “How you want your father’s last rites
to be performed?”

The crowd fell silent. Now it was Gudia’s turn to speak. Her
decision would be final and binding for everybody there. Was she so
important?  Had she ever dreamt of this?
No. She had never hoped for much from people, except one man but he was dead
now. She was the daughter of a roadside beggar whose life centred on the
two-kilometre stretch from Lal Jain Mandir to Fatehpuri Jama Masjid.

She knew her father was a liar, a master impersonator who
would change his looks, his language and expressions according to the places of
worship he visited, according to people he begged to. But she was being given
much importance today. For a moment she felt like a princess standing at the
centre of her subjects begging for mercy, waiting for her announcement.

Unaware of the significance of her decision, she paid a
glance to her father whose hollow black cheeks gleamed in the morning rays. She
heard herself murmuring “Ah! How important you have become after your death. If
you could see those who abused you; those who rebuked you; those who shrugged
you off, are desperately thinking about your welfare! At least you will now
live in peace! Did you not often abuse these dignified men? Indeed, you were an
ungrateful man.” But she would not be ungrateful. She must move to the doctor
before the rays reflecting off the imposing glass-structure building nearby
became pricklier.

Anguished over her decision, the Maulvi angrily said,
“Haven’t you sold your father for the sake of a few coins? You are truly the
daughter of an imposter.”

The writer is chief sub editor, The Statesman, New Delhi