Any day above ground is a good day. It’s pith description. A telling tale, this adage.
The night deepens with my recollections of the day. The cicadas are in-play and in-sync. I’m still alive. This thing feeds on reassurance so here it is: I’m still up. Still breathing. Still recollecting. Still writing. I’m sure you had a good day too; if you’re still up and about it’s been a good day and hopefully, a goodnight.
I’m in my little refuge. A nominal room. Minimal. A bed, a mattress, blankets and a pillow. Not much to look at. Nothing much to harp about. That’s what I thought too.
I’d hungered. So I slid out in the alleys to catch a quick bite, a Kolkatan-Roll. And there he was.
A man I know and do not know. I’ve seen him along the ghats, and in the narrow passages.
He must be in his sixties. I’m not sure. I don’t ask. Fear of aging? Maybe. I’d pass him in the narrow corridors and hear him go “Namaste Sir. Some change please?”
The sheer fear and panic of being accosted in such a direct manner urging your self-declared sense of inherent-generosity into instant action used to keep me away, reactively. I’d shuffled my feet as fast as they could go to escape this sting, this entrapment.
Obviously none of it was my doing.
Why, it was all his fault. Why can’t he be more patient? More gentle? More beggarly? More in need of me then me in need of him?
He even spoke some English. He must do better. That’s how I was pinning him down, to avoid the unnecessary burden of looking a hapless man in the eye, and confronting his reality, or mine, as it were. But mostly we look away. It’s a case of out of sight and out of fright.
You see, we’d love to think we’re kind, giving, and concerned. That’s mostly true until our generosity is really tested. And here altruism is a lovely cliché that probably works in a place far, far away where nobody needs it and everybody’s giving it. Fortunately we don’t dwell in such glass houses, or maybe we do but the towers are too high-up to really zoom-in on what’s happening down-below.
And down-below our average world of comings, goings and mundane happenings is a stark-subterranean world of gritty reality that comes alive when the streets are deserted.
Where men find refuge in the neglect; amidst the various nooks and corners, as they look forward to a night of shelter under shuttered-shops and no-man’s walkways.
Used old cardboards mattress the cemented floors, and the shawl that drapes them during the day becomes a warm blanket on nights like these.
The tattered old bag he slings over his shoulder becomes his pillow, and lying down on it, his head rests, as his body keeps still, to keep in the warmth and keep out the cold. And it’s been getting colder by the night, as winter peaks around these parts.
The day time sun’s been warm, suitably, and the winds don’t gust too strong in the alleys of this city.
There’re the neighborhood dogs keeping him company.
And an old cow or two always sleeps bang in the middle of his street, chewing cud.
Those with the energy or without any makeshift beddings, go down to the burning ghats, drawing warmth from the cremation pyres, and the company of people grieving or just mulling about.
Anywhere else in the world and this would indeed be one strange sight.
But here’s it’s a daily affair.
It’s also a coveted prize. There’re dogs that viciously bark away the competition, zealously guarding this piece of prime-time real-estate turf. Goats and cows hang around the open-chula-shrine-stove of seasonal sadhus. There’re people who sleep rough all over, but personal-vibes or the lack of it seems to either pull us toward a particular individual or push us away.
For me it was a bit of both; I’d been initially pushed away, and this was three years back. Three years since I was pushed away from his presence, and now I’m being pulled back in.
I guess he’s been the same person, really, and maybe I’ve changed.
We don’t know each other, other than each other’s faces. Our conversations, if one can call it that, is a brief “Hello. Namaste.
Thank you. Take care. Good day. Good night.”
I’ve a feeling he doesn’t say it for the measly little change I offer, which he kindly and graciously accepts. And then I’m all the more embarrassed by my own misery, running away from the scene of the crime as soon as it’s committed.
For his part, he’s been noticeably clam, and now ever so quiet. I think he saves the silences for me, and I wonder if I encouraged it. But he’ll smile, bless him, and extend his pointed greetings.
I think he’s just good natured, and what I once saw as impatience is nothing more than an earnest call, which he’s stopped calling. I wonder if I’d tried to help him or bribe him. In any case I think of him a lot.
He’s healthy for his age, and though he sleeps rough, he’s one of those neat fellows who keeps clean in the dirt. I think the river makes his life cleaner, if not healthier.
Three years and this is what he has: a shawl, a lungi, and a kurta, all white and a jolla that he carries them in. During the days I don’t see him much but often, at nights like tonight, he likes to sleep on a walkway-pavement next to a house facing a Hindu temple in the neighborhood I’m sheltering in.
On a particular night a couple of weeks back he was positively alight. I’d gone to the neighborhood chaiwallah for a nightly cuppa that’s become a ritual. On the way back we’d met.
He was just about to settle in for the night, when he saw me and said out loud, “Sir, today good day for me! Goodnight Sir!” His face was just one big happy smile like the emoticon.
I left him another measly offering, and was considerably less ashamed owing to his infectious state of utter delight. I still recall that night as I walked away feeling quite happy myself, for the visible fact that he looked pleased, and happy. I wondered what it was.
The possibilities fiddling my head. I should ask. But I didn’t. Now the moment’s passed.
I’ve way too many walls in me and not enough ladders.
But he didn’t look that happy tonight. And again I asked nothing. The walls are too big. The ladders too small. And bridges non-existent.
My boss’s right-hand man (incidentally his left-hand limps and I still haven’t made inquiries) had wanted me to return one of the extra-blankets I’d been using, as the house was full, and I’d returned it mumbling about the increasing cold.
So I sat, looking around, thinking my bed’s bare from the missing blanket, and that the little room’s pretty plain, in a very self-pitying sort of way where we look for what is never enough and find justification in the way we are and vindication in the way we act.
The hunger came and I left promptly, with a hundred-rupee bill in my pajamas, and I came across my man.
He didn’t look that happy tonight, as he was that night of the smiling emoticon.
Maybe I was reading too much in his appearance. Or maybe I was projecting my own unhappiness.
Perhaps he’d a particularly long day. A rough day perhaps, and now a rough night looms large and cold. When did he first go homeless? Does he have a family? Is he even homeless? Has he renounced it all?
Was it choice? How long has he been living this life? What does he feel? How does he see the world? My head was running wild. I was amok with questions skirting everywhere.
I sped my walk. More so to give him space. Plus I was again embarrassed. Ashamed at my one-blanket-less predicament. Frustrated at my many needs. Aghast at my wantonness. Undeserving. Worthless.
A two-legged creep of a freak wailing about wrong shoes in the company of a one-legged man. And then it dawned on me; that this ranks as one of the most egotistical comparisons I’ve ever made.
What presumption! What a self-aggrandizing dastardly bastard! What makes me think I’m more favorably endowed by the gods than this man who sleeps rough in the smoothest way you’ll ever see a man sleep?
It’s the relaxed sleep of a child, or the knowing slumber of the sage. There’s more than a sense of peace in it.
More than an acceptance of reality. And a look of contentment. It’s complete. There’s no struggle. No strife. There’s no need to find the sweet spot that comforts because everything is sweet and comfortable. Where I coil and go fetal he sleeps straight; a still head gazing directly above. Or am I romanticizing his sleep?
I approach him as quietly as I can, calling out “Bhaiji?” He’s upright in a jiffy, and gives me a folded-namasteji. I hand over a plastic bag with a vegetable-roll and some change in it, bidding him goodnight. He gives me a smile, thanks, and a goodnight. I’m again embarrassed by my miserly offering, but tonight that feeling is invaded by another; relief with gratitude.
I think the relief comes from seeing him getting by fine in his world, easing my own guilt, and the gratitude for making me see, however brief, what a seemingly hapless man’s generosity can be; and that alone makes me respect him, discouraging all thoughts of probing in and pining on, even if it means silencing the curious cat.
The lights are out. The power’s gone. I may be awake but I hope he’s not. I hope he’s indeed having a goodnight.