At first sight he was almost invisible, curled into a spot between the black painted railings that fronted the tomb and the trunk of a low hanging Ashoka tree. Most mornings he was to be found here, wrapped in a long black anorak, knees pulled to his chest as he looked into the distance. There was something captivating about him: an unmistakable sense of dignity, yet a sadness too.
Society today is destroyed. They say it’s “developed”, but we don’t care about each other. A lot of people see me and probably think: “He’s just a footpath man, or a beggar, why should I talk to him?” But society has it wrong.
We need more insaniyat, more humanship — “humanity”, as you say.
Insaniyat means curiosity, awareness, developing the capacity to help. It means respecting your neighbours and surroundings. It means asking yourself: “Who is this or that person? Are they ok?”
If our politicians sat down and worked together, if they thought together, they would build more humanity and brotherhood. It would be for the general good of human progress. But they don’t do that. Most people see it as a waste of time.
Now between 75 and 80 years old, Saeed is without home or income. Each morning, around 7am, he makes his way from the night shelter at which he sleeps to the red-stone, tree-lined tomb that stands across the road, “to take the air”.
“It’s too noisy for me there with all the prayers going on”, he says. “Here, I can take in the beauty, the surroundings”.
He sits at the tomb’s edge in most weathers, waiting for the library close by to open, where he goes to read the newspaper and various books.
I’m a man of knowledge, he explained emphatically, as we sat down to speak one morning in the pale light of early spring. I’ve studied the lives of all of the prophets — Christ, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha — and about all of our religions. I can speak four different languages: Farsee, Hindi, Urdu, English. Do you know about DNA and cloning? I can tell you all about it. A man has many DNAs within him!
Where did you learn all of this? I asked.
I taught myself, mostly. I was at school until I was 12 years old, but then I left home. My father was a selfish man and didn’t care about his son at all. Once I left, I would work for money in the daytime, and then study by the light of a pole until 3 o’clock every morning. I studied physics, biology, literature, novels… many things. By myself.
Saeed was born in the city of Kanpur, in a place called Begum Ganj. Since leaving home, his life has been split between Bombay and Delhi – where he has worked a whole host of professions. He’s been “a mechanic, a spray painter, a painter, a technician, a carpenter, a polisher” but most of all, he says, he is a lover of books.
At one point, he exclaimed proudly, eyes gleaming, I even had a 400-book library cum bookshop in Bombay, filled with books on the different world religions, the lives of the prophets, and many other things! But ten years ago, as my faculties started to diminish, I was forced to embrace poverty. I had to donate all of my books, because there was no one to help me.
I’ve seen a lot of poverty in my life, many ups and downs. I have felt sadness from top to bottom. But you tell me, is there anything lacking in my poverty? Is there anything missing, anything less?
I’m a fakir, a man of love. I only accepted the food you gave me because you asked me if I would take it, and because it gives you pleasure.
What do you see as real poverty?
In my opinion, real poverty is a lack of humanity.
There is a Persian couplet written on the front face of the UN Building in New York. It says: “Kisi insaan ki taklif dekh kar agar tumhe dukh ka ehsas na ho, to tum apna nam insaniat ki shreni se kat do”.
[If you don’t realise someone’s pain, even after seeing his problems, you should not call yourself a human ].
This is what humanity truly means. It’s what all of the religions teach – whether Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism. We are very far from it today.
A person has a duty to be kind and compassionate. Money can’t buy that. Think of the most compassionate people in the world—Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Gandhi and Buddha—crores [millions] of people take their names every day. Do those people take the names of any billionaires or millionaires, or those Washington folk?!
I asked him how he felt we could change this, how we could increase “insaniyat” in our society.
We need to educate people, particularly our children, on humanity, morals, how to take care of the needy, not to ignore them. We shouldn’t take it for granted that if there is a beggar or homeless person that this is the harsh reality. It is not a fixed truth.
A lot of people see me and probably think “that’s just an old beggar over there, there’s no point knowing about him”. Nothing more. Most people don’t want to give back. They just want to keep their money for themselves.
Our governments don’t care about the poor either. This so-called “economic development” is lacking. There’s no thinking, character, education. It’s a falsehood. We need moral economies in place, where things are looked at in more depth, beyond supply-demand and profit-loss scenarios. The money that is made should be spent wisely, not be used to take rights away. For the good. We need more love within our societies.
You are very inspiring, Saeed-Ji.
I’m inspiring because of my humanity. Everything I say is based on a belief in humanity, in love.
With these thoughts of love, I wondered if he had ever been married. Yet at this, he looked a little forlorn.
I’ve never even touched a woman… Many people don’t believe me, but it’s true. I was never able to marry on account of my poverty. I couldn’t have looked after a wife, and my high character wouldn’t allow me to go here and there for women.
He paused, reflecting on this, but then continued with more brightness.
But there are benefits, you know. Both men and women have respected me for this. If you are like that, I think it creates a permanent light in your character. That’s why people are attracted to me. It’s the light inside me.
Look at me. I am an old man, who is dirty, who hasn’t changed his clothes in two months… but still people come and talk with me. Many people, of all ages. Some even think I’m an alchemist! It’s because of my light.
As we spoke, two of the neighbourhood dogs approached, hoping for some scraps of food. One placed its nose affectionately against the side of his thin leg. Saeed dug into his tattered ladies’ handbag, complete with brown tortoise shell exterior and wooden bead handles, pulling out a half-filled bottle of water.
“Jao, jao! Bas, chalo!” [Go, go! Ok, go!], he called at them in a wavering voice, shaking the bottle gently in their direction. It didn’t do much.
“These dogs, they really love me”, he said, chuckling. “We have become fast friends!”
 Fully translated from its original Persian, the poem reads:
Human beings are members of a whole, // In creation of one essence and soul. // If one member is afflicted with pain, // Other members uneasy will remain. // If you have no sympathy for human pain, // The name of human you cannot retain.