By Vahan Ishkhanyan
“My late mother would say: you love Raj Kapur so much that you will end up being a tramp one day,” Avo remembers his mother’s prophesy. Raj Kapur was a Bollywood star whose movies were very popular in Armenia in the 1970-80s. The “Tramp”, in which he starred was always on the screens. Many know by heart the songs from this movie.
The mother was right. Whether it was the love of the film or the economic hardship of his country, Avo became a tramp . . .
Avetik Khachatryan, 40, still sings songs from those Indian films. He also named his children from movie references. Hrach, is 10 (he named him in honor of Raj Kapur), and his daughters are Gita, 6, and Zita, 4, (from the “Zita and Gita” movie). Even the birthmark on Gita’s back is reminiscent of India’s map. He calls himself and his son tramps (“brodyaga,” in Russian) – brodyaga Hrach and brodyaga Avo.
He loved Indian movies so much that in the ‘80s Avo learned to speak Hindi from Indian students and translated three movies into Armenian. He remembers the words of his Indian friend, which he says in Hindi and then translates: “Armindar was right when he said that life is worse than death.”
Avo’s life has also turned into an Indian movie. He has become a kind hero who is without a proper job, raising three children alone. He is not the father of the youngest of the children, but he considers it his duty to father her too: “Blood doesn’t count here,” he says. His wife left him, leaving the children behind. Sometimes she pays visits and takes little Zita with her and then she brings her back again.
In the 1990s Avo’s brothers ran into debts, sold their father’s house and then left for Russia. Avo rented an apartment where he lived with his mother and worked at a construction site. He got married in 1994. A year later Hrach was born. His wife left but then came back and Gita was born, and again she left with Gita.
Avo lost his job. He could no longer pay the rent. The two tramps – Avo and three-year-old Hrach – found themselves in the street, homeless and hungry.
“I knocked at somebody’s door, a woman opened. I asked her to let me stay with her for one night because I had nowhere to sleep and felt sorry for my child. She asked if it was a new way of robbery. I told her I wanted to stay for one night and suggested that she tie my feet with a rope to make sure I wouldn’t run away. She believed me, led me to the bedroom upstairs. And in the morning she gave me tea.”
For two days Avo fed his child from garbage cans. Then he learned about bottle collecting.
Avo joined the large army of the poor going from home to home collecting bottles and handing them to reception points for cash. “For many years I was collecting bottles with Hrach in my arms or in the pram. We have our own anthem – the song from “Tramp”: “Give way, they are calling you.”
At first collecting was difficult. Many people drove him from their doorsteps and cursed him and some even wanted to beat him for knocking at their door. But now he has permanent residents who know him and keep bottles especially for him.
Soon, he took a second “job”. He dumps garbage that people leave on their doorsteps. Some pay 200 drams (about 50 cents) a month; others pay 50-100 drams a day. All in all, he manages to earn 5,000 drams (about $9) a month by dumping garbage.
Occasionally Avo picks up odd jobs. Recently he hauled 39 sacks of sand up four flights of stairs. He was paid about $4.30.
For four years the “tramp” has managed to rent a 12-square-meter room in Yerevan’s Nork district where he lives with his three children. There is no kitchen; the toilet is outside. It costs 8,000 drams a month. The landlord wanted to raise it to 10,000, but then he felt sorry for Avo and left it unchanged.
Every morning Avo goes collecting and dumping, leaving his three children alone. Since Hrach began to attend school he doesn’t go with him: “I said, Hrach jan, you must attend lessons, you don’t have to come with me anymore. If they ask you at school about your daddy’s occupation, tell them he is engaged in commerce.”
Avo hates to see winter. People don’t drink so much in winter, leaving fewer bottles. He is often short the rent, and the electric bill grows.
“Well, summer will come, everything will be alright,” Avo says.
Avo always wears clean clothes, a white shirt. He used to wash his clothes by hand. Now he has an old Soviet-type washing machine which residents gave him as a gift. It leaks water, but anyway it is better than doing laundry by hand.
The single father manages enough for food, electricity and rent. The family’s possessions, including cassettes with Indian songs and a small TV-set that has lost colors are gifts from residents.
Vladimir Manukyan, who lives on Baghramyan Street, says that people like Avo very much: “He is a guy who will always lend his helping hand, he knows a lot, he is not a simple poor man,” he says. “I give him bottles and also clothes and equipment that I don’t want to throw away. He has a son, Brodyaga. He used to come with him before.” The residents do not know about his two daughters.
“It is said in the Bible: I have dressed flowers in colorful clothes, but you, human being, if you love me as much as a mustard seed, honestly, won’t I be all the more sure to clothe you?” says Avo, without feeling that his life has given the Biblical passage a new sense.
Four years ago Avo asked his landlord to go to the village after his wife and ask her to come back. Before he went, the wife showed up with a newborn baby in her arms.
“Avo came and said, ‘Uncle Vagho, you see, there is no woman in the house, it is difficult, I want to bring the mother of my children back. Will you go to Lernavan to speak for me? Perhaps she will listen to you and come back’,” says the landlord, Vaghinak.
A few days later he looked out the window and saw a woman holding an infant. The wife came and stayed. Three or four months later she weaned the baby and left. Avo kept that child too. She calls him daddy, she hasn’t seen another daddy.
Now his wife shows up once or twice a month: “The mother of the children is not 100 percent, she is a 30-percent mother,” says Vaghinak. “What will be their end now, I don’t know.”
And the Indian movie continues, with good and bad people, love and betrayal, compassion and cruelty. . . And the “tramp”, who dumps garbage and picks bottles, and waits for the happy ending.