As I walked through midtown Manhattan, a winter wind howled between the skyscrapers, throwing grit into my eyes. Stuck on a novel I was working on, I had left my apartment and gone for a walk, but it was too cold to be outside. Without enough money for a movie or a meal, I was looking for a warm bookstore to duck into.
Two years ago, I had given up a well paying architecture job so that I could follow a lifetime dream, and write a novel—but now I was running out of money, and the writing wasn’t going well. Maybe my parents, back in India, were right: at forty-two, maybe it was too late to re-invent myself as a writer.
I walked on, but couldn’t find a bookstore. My mood was darkening into despair when a deep voice suddenly addressed me.
“So, have you recognized me?”
An old Sikh man standing on a street corner had addressed me in Hindi. But it wasn’t that unusual- with my dark hair and beard I was clearly Indian, and this was New York, after all.
“Can I help you? Do you need directions?” I replied in Hindi, noticing the man’s white beard and sky-blue turban. Despite the cold, he wore a white cotton kurta under his thin windbreaker.
“No, I don’t need directions,” the old Sikh answered calmly. “But you? A little lost, no?”
I stared at the man. He had the sharply defined features of an ascetic, with piercing brown eyes.
“I’m sorry? Have we met before?”
“Not in this life, but many times before. You see, I am a holy man from Punjab.” Clicking open his cheap plastic briefcase, he handed me a business card: below his name were the words HOLY MAN.
I began to understand that this was a scam, like the supposedly deaf and dumb people who handed out card and flowers on the subway, then asked for money.
“I’m in a hurry.” I shoved my hands in my pockets and took a step away.
“Believe me,” said the holy man, “I know you. You used to have a conventional life. You are now following your heart, but it is not easy. You are thinking of giving up.”
Stunned, I stared at him. How could this man know all this?
The holy man thrust a small necklace of brown beads at me. “Take these. Carry them everywhere with you, and you will prevail.”
I took the beads, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being tricked.
“You are skeptical, I can see.” The holy man held my gaze. “When the time comes, I will send you a sign.”
Unnerved by the conversation, I gave the holy man my last four dollars and walked away. The last I saw of him was the top of his sky-blue turban.
With no money left, I walked all the way uptown to my apartment. That evening I told my wife about the holy man, neglecting to mention the money I gave him. We both agreed that this supposed ‘holy man’ probably walked the streets of midtown, preying on homesick Indian immigrants. When the time comes, I will send you a sign, he had said. Yeah, right. I’d never see him again.
Forgetting the holy man, I struggled on with my writing, but didn’t get very far. Before abandoning my novel, I decided to pitch it to editors at a writing conference that I could barely afford. I’d let them decide whether I was to be a writer or not.
The morning of the conference, I ran down the stairs to my cavernous, yellow-tiled subway station and hurried through the turnstiles. The glass booth at the entrance was always empty, but that day something made me look back.
Sitting within the glass booth was a young Sikh man wearing a sky-blue turban and a dark-blue M.T.A. uniform. It was hard to see through the fogged glass, but I could swear that he smiled and raised a hand in greeting. Stunned, I waved back.
All the way to the conference, I felt a strange elation, and when I went in to pitch the editors, I was calm and convincing. They were interested in my novel, and I went back to it with renewed vigor. That winter, every time I went through that subway station I looked for the uniformed Sikh, but the booth remained empty.
Six months later, an editor from the writing conference bought my finished book. By then it was summer, and our stay in New York had come to an end. Packing to leave, I went through the pockets of my winter coat and discovered the necklace that the holy man had given me, just cheap brown plastic beads strung together.
I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in holy men or omens. But every winter since then, I’ve worn that coat, and when it is very cold, I put my hands in my pockets, and let my fingers feel the hard outline of the beads.
* * *
A.X. Ahmad was born in India, and now lives in Washington, DC. He is the author of THE CARETAKER, the first in a trilogy featuring ex-Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh. His second book, THE LAST TAXI RIDE, about the murder of a Bollywood actress, will be published in June 2014. Read more of his writing at his website.