The caw-caw of countless crows…the slow swish of coconut-stick brooms gracefully maneuvered by bent backs…the tinny unhurried rattle of stainless steel buckets full of sugared tea and coffee grown in the nearby Kerala hills…village women at the river scolding children, slapping saris against an upturned flat rock. India awakes. It is early morning in Kottayam. Who would believe the miracle that would soon come to this sleepy town?

The land is brown, parched as always before the first monsoon. The open beak of the chakora – the most auspicious of birds – is turned upward to the heavens. The ancient ones say that this is how one must thirst for God. However, most villagers settle for some rice paddy, lentils, green chillies, and, if Lakshmi smiles, a new piece of cloth at Onam Festival, when old King Mahabali fulfils his promise and descends from heaven to visit his people each year.

“Will the rains never come?” complains Meenakshi, stretching her fat arms over her head. “Look, there she is again. There, sleeping on the pavement. That new beggar girl. Humph. As if we had any food to spare.”

“She’s young,” observes Pachakaimal. “And crazy,” clucks Meenakshi, dismissing her with a motion of her hand, and turning her head to steer her husband’s mind back to the shop. The floor swept, she began to set out the glasses and pastries, chatting with her husband to pass the time. With her parents’ dowry, she should have done better than to marry a tea shop owner – and a lazy one at that.

Suddenly a bell clangs as if heralding a royal visitor. Two white bullocks with patient eyes sway, pulling a heavy cart of ripe coconuts to the morning market. Rukmini stirs in her sleep as the bullocks pass by, but she refuses to awaken and leave dreaming behind. Every night when she sleeps, Rukmini dreams the same dream of the lotus-eyed, blue-coloured one, Gopala Krishna, the one who dances with the gopis. The gopis, as of course everyone knows, are great rishis reborn as cow maidens to be devotees of Lord Krishna. Why should Rukmini wake from such a divine dance to the life of a street beggar?

Pachakaimal turns his head to watch the sleeping girl with close-cropped hair and wonders aloud, “What is her name? Which village is she from? Is she a widow? How young she is.” Menakashi shatters his musing. “Enough. Come along now. Get the glasses so we can open shop. Go to now. We must work. Aio, are all men lazy?”

“Orange…orange…papaya…mango…orange…orange,” hawk the street vendors.

Rukmini opens her eyes, causing her beautiful, blue-coloured lord to vanish. Dust flies from the scurry of thronged feet and fills her eyes, which she wipes with the edge of a faded, torn sari. She stretches and rubs her taut stomach, trying to remember when she fed it last. Yesterday? The day before? Time has ceased to be a reality. She remembers walking away from her village, a distance of five or six days perhaps. How long she has lived on the streets now she no longer remembers, nor does she recollect the day her husband died – and her in-laws threw her out. One mouth too many to feed they reasoned. She was then childishly naïve, vulnerable to the drunken, frustrated males who harassed and used her. Now, in her mid-twenties, she has left that village for good and made her way to this larger town.

Rising unsteadily to her bare feet, Rukmini steps out onto the dusty road and is almost struck by a bicycle which rings and swerves just in time to avoid hitting her, the rider scolding her inattention. Almost deaf since birth, she cannot hear the bell or his scolding. Rukmini misses her dream. Nearby, on a backstreet lives Aziz. With memory as blank as his unseeing eyes, the old Muslim spends his days begging, plucking the sleeves of indifferent passers-by with his grimy, gnarled fingers. Old, blind, and gaunt, Aziz has regressed into infancy, babbling incoherently.

Pachakaimal says Aziz has been on the backstreets of Kottayam for the past twenty-five years, a red, tin bowl his only possession. No one remembers where he came from or if he had any family. How it happened or what unspoken understanding passed between them, nobody knows. One day the old beggar was alone and uncared for, the next, there she was beside him on his patch of pavement. There they were: Rukmini, the crazy Hindu village girl in a soiled and tattered sari, and Aziz, a blind and wrinkled old Muslim, suddenly inseparable. As dawn breaks over their corner of the world, Rukmini now wakes with purpose and wanders down to the local tea shop. A handful of coins jingles in her palm and Meenakshi notes she always pays without complaint for tea and bread. Carefully balancing the hot glass of tea and the slices of bread, Rukmini ignores the jeering comments of the crowd.

With what clearly is devotion, she lifts the steaming glass of tea to the old man’s lips, and smiles. She is now the mother to the child he has become. She washes away the grime from his face and sees that he never goes hungry, never feeding herself until he has been fed. The townspeople call her mad to sacrifice what little she has. A crow swoops down and snatches a piece of bread from Aziz’s hand just as he is about to eat it. Unable to see that it has disappeared, poor Aziz bites his finger, causing onlookers to laugh. Mirth soon turns to silence as the beggar girl places the hurt finger against her forehead and tenderly draws the old man to her breast.

Another day, Meenakshi interpreting Rukmini’s compassion as suggestive embraces, calls out, “Crazy, crazy girl. Why do you give yourself to an old beard that cannot even see?” Weeks pass into months as the odd couple provides morbid amusement for the dull town. The beedi-smoking men jeer while the young boys, sometimes from boredom, throw stones. Mostly Rukmini ignores them or laughs back, but occasionally she breaks down and cries into the old man’s lap. Then Aziz comforts her as a father.

At night they sleep amidst beedi-cigarette stubs and discarded trash, curled up on the darkened backstreet like contented kittens. Sometimes Rukmini is lured into strange bedrooms, returning with a couple of rupees in payment. Then, disapproving, the old man refuses to speak to her. Often, he is heard to wail, “What will she do after I am gone? May Allah protect her.” Both accept that only death will part them now. In time, they learn to ignore the rude stares and lewd taunts and gestures – not because he is blind or she is deaf nor because he is old or she is young, or he a Muslim and she a Hindu, but because in the filth and stench of an Indian backstreet, they have transformed dark poverty into light.

Aziz is mostly now a contented man, stroking his stubby, white beard, and listening for hours to the young girl’s chatter. Her movements once hesitant, are sure and quick, and full of purpose. Her face shines like a maharaja’s jewel. The village women who pass now avert their eyes, blinded by such brightness. Rukmini has no need for dreams now. She smells the scent of white jasmine. Even Meenakshi leaves her alone for the most part, content to count her money and fight with Pachakaimal. Still, sometimes angry with her lazy husband, Meenakshi cruelly taunts the beggar girl. “Can’t you see he’s nothing but rotting flesh?” Rukmini looks up, smiles, and says, “I do not know what you mean, mother. He is my Gopala Krishna, my lord. He is my blue-coloured One.”

Excerpted with permission from “Rukmini’s God” from East & West: Stories of India, Catherine Ann Jones, Pippa Rann Books.