“Stay away from me,” I hear someone else yell. I see a man in a dusty old suit asking people for change. Most people ignore him. Some wave him off like he’s vermin. We’re right smack in the middle of the Central Business District and all the worker bees bring home a considerable amount of money, but no one’s got a few coins for this old man.

Our eyes meet. The man smiles at me. He doesn’t quite look like a homeless person, so I can’t figure out why he’s walking around asking worker bees for loose change.

Everyone’s scared of homeless people: of talking to them, of becoming one of them. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to not even have the basic necessities of food, shelter and housing. It’s terrifying out on the streets at night. I wonder how they manage it, why they bother managing it.

The Beggar King

There is a story that repeats itself in all cultural traditions of the world. It is about a king who disguises himself as a beggar. In this story, it is only his dog who recognises him. But the larger question remains. Why would a king choose to disguise himself as a beggar?

If the throne is about power, money and dominance; then why would a king disguise himself as a beggar?

It is common knowledge that even when one has ‘a considerable amount of money’, one may not have ‘a few coins’ for a person who appears to be begging. Why is that? When we see homeless people on the street, people who do not possess ‘the basic necessities’ of life, are we actually seeing the reality of who they truly are?

While most people would wave away the beggar, there is eventually someone who stops and shows him compassion and kindness. It may be in cash or even in kind. We have all heard stories of strangers who reach out to people and help them during a time of need. This is not money that has to be earned. It is merely help that has to be received.

You could say and even conclude that the king has no need for ‘help’ in cash or in kind. It is a different sort of help he is looking for, then. By disguising his true identity and his true self, he is looking for a different kind of help. It is the kind of help that cannot be met through payment or repayment. This is a not a tit-for-tat transaction.

What the beggar king is looking for is to understand and know what really goes on in the hearts and minds of people. And as long as he is king, not many will tell him the truth.

So he disguises himself. And what he discovers for himself through the art of disguise is what ultimately paves the way for his policies, his ideas and his new trajectory.

The return of Ulysses, illustration by E. M. Synge from the 1909 Story of the World

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