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Men who left behind deficit of magic

Contrasting ends: Bermuda's much-loved Johnny Barnes passed away peacefully prompting a tide of tributes and memories, while Datta Phuge, “the Gold Man of Pune”, was stoned to death by people he owed money (Photographs courtesy of The Economist)

This joint obituary, published in The Economist today, celebrates how both Johnny Barnes and Datta Phuge, an Indian known as “the Gold Man of Pune”, grew to be widely loved after initially being taken for eccentric “madmen”.

In the city of Pune in Maharashstra, in 2012, Datta Phuge conceived a desire to display something no one else had. Something, that is, made of pure gold.

As founder-floater of the Vakratunda Chit Fund, a slightly slippery credit society, he had any amount of gold in his possession or on his body: rings, bracelets, coins, mobile phone. He was in the habit of wearing 7kg of it a day, here and there. He had given a heap to his wife Seema, who began to find it a little boring to wear. But since gold was his passion and his chief way of showing how happy and fortunate he was, he wanted to flaunt it still more.

After chatting it over with his friends at Ranka Jewellers, he ordered a shirt made almost wholly of gold. It comprised 100,000 spangles and 14,000 gold flowers fixed to white velvet cloth, so that it could be folded away like any other shirt. Accessories were provided, also of 22-carat gold: necklaces, cuffs and a belt. Altogether, the outfit weighed 9.5kg. It took 15 craftsmen from West Bengal, working 16-hour days, more than two weeks to create it. And it cost 1.27 crore rupees, or $250,000.

Almost 13,000km away, across two oceans in Bermuda, Johnny Barnes in 1986 also decided to put on a prodigal display. He would stand at the Crow Lane roundabout in Hamilton, where most of the rush-hour traffic came past, and tell each passing motorist how sweet life was and how much he loved them. His days had long overflowed with happiness, in his garden and in his jobs as a railway electrician and a bus-driver, where he had taken up the habit of waving and smiling to anyone who passed as he ate his lunchtime sandwiches. He had lavished joy on his wife Belvina, “covering her with honey”, as he put it. But there was plenty left over.

For 30 years he went to the roundabout every weekday morning. He would rise at around 3am, walk two miles to his post, stay for six hours shouting “I love you!”, smiling and blowing kisses, and then walk home again. He was there in the heat, his wide-brimmed straw hat keeping off the sun, and there in the rain with his umbrella. Only storms deterred him and eventually, the creakings of old age. Over the years, he transmitted his radiant happiness to drivers hundreds of thousands of times.

Both Mr Barnes and Mr Phuge were taken for madmen at the start; but they justified themselves partly by the ambient culture. In India, Mr Phuge explained, everyone loved gold, and in Maharashtra they loved it even more. Politicians went laden with it and, as a man of political ambition himself, he hoped the shirt might get him noticed nationally. That was why he wore it not just to functions or events, but also when going casually around the town, causing a small sensation.

For Mr Barnes, his extravagant love of Hamilton’s commuters came partly from Bermudians’ habit of saying “Good morning” anyway, partly from his genuine joy in the life God had blessed him with, and partly from the switching his mother had given him when he failed, as a child, to greet an old lady. Every day ever since, he had tried to spread happiness to as many people as possible.

Fame came rapidly. Mr Barnes was hailed as an icon of Bermuda, and in 1998 a statue of him was put up near the roundabout. Tourists from Africa and America came to be photographed with him and to buy his dollar postcards; he once waved to the Queen of England. Mr Phuge was on all the Marathi TV channels modelling his shirt, but also had BBC reporters and Canadians lining up at his front door; they were, his wife said, “even more sought-after than royals”. Both men were credited with powers to make gold, or happiness, increase.

Mr Barnes, a Seventh-day Adventist, often prayed with his visitors beside the road, and his rare absences were taken as bad omens. Mr Phuge (who always wore with his shirt a giant “Om” in crystals on a thick chain of gold) was believed to have the Midas touch, and was asked to bless houses. Both men hugely enjoyed the attention.

There were naysayers, of course. Those who were not so lucky, or in a bad mood, resented these continuous demonstrations of good fortune. Gentle Mr Barnes was condemned as a traffic hazard, and once had a bucket of water thrown over him. Mr Phuge was more justifiably attacked as a shady moneylender, parading in his gold while local farmers starved — and indeed while he, too, was deep in debt. When he strolled out in his shirt his heavily armed “boys” went too, to protect him.

On the night of July 14, on his way to a party — but not, apparently, in the shirt — he was stoned to death by “friends” to whom he owed money. Nothing could have been further from the peaceful death of Johnny Barnes, in ripe old age and in the firm conviction he was heading home. The moral of the tale seems almost too easy to draw: the selfish flaunter of happiness, weighed down by gold, came to an awful end, while the selfless one, wearing his prodigious love so lightly, was praised and lamented.

Both men, though, left behind a deficit of magic. After Mr Phuge died, no one could find the wonderful gold shirt. It was not in the house, nor at Ranka Jewellers; rumour had it that a creditor from Mumbai had taken it away. As for Mr Barnes, people searched up and down, far and wide, for the true secret of his happiness; for that, too, had disappeared with him.

To see the obituary online, visit: http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21702424-johnny-barnes-bermudas-greeter-and-datta-phuge-gold-man-pune-died-july-9th-and