It is afternoon, and I walk along an old segment of town that houses educational institutions and a few offices. Rows of banyan trees fringe the road here, their branches arching across the road, shielding it from the rage of the afternoon sun.
Life on these streets has slowed down.
A fruit vendor parks his cart by the pavement, and leans against the trunk of a banyan tree. From across the road, a cobbler looks on lazily from his makeshift shop. A man sleeps under the shade of a tree while not far off, a dog sleeps too, his eyes and ears awakening intermittently to the slightest sound that interrupts the oppressive silence of this afternoon. A few crows splash about in little puddles of water that have collected on the pavement from leaks in the corporation pipes.
Under the shade of an ageing banyan tree, its branches sagging under their weight, sits an old man, his figure sagging under the burden of life he wears over him. He is self-absorbed; his eyes look inward, as if dwelling on his predicament. His is a life that hangs on the edge; he is one among those millions of people who live at the interface of life and death.
His is a world that thrives on the very peripheries of the ‘living’ world.
He is clad in rags. A grey beard, long neglected, descends generously from his chin, and gives character to his face. Like weeds that joyously erupt in a long-neglected garden, abandoned and deserted. A lifetime is carved onto his face; his face is of no one in particular- it is a face that speaks of the stories of that world as a whole- the world that thrives at the interface of life and death. It is an antique face that would perhaps have fetched him a place in a museum.
A faded rag is spread out in front of him, and on it, are coins- 25p, 50p, and occasional Re1 coins that seem to mock at his life-
Static reminders of a life that hangs on the edge.
Starvation, ailments, loneliness and deprivation stare from the battered soul within the frail body, and he carries the image of a man who has no spirit left in him. The last vestige of hope has deserted his soul.
I trace his life back in time, in the realms of my mind, and faces from memory reveal themselves.
Faces of young men and women who flank the municipal tanks and pumps in the early hours of the morning, with the day ahead seeing them in a new form, a new role every day. On some days, they beg. On other days, they sell cheap wares- beaded necklaces, colored threads and safety pins. There are days when they even pick pockets and snatch chains.
Yes! We have all seen this old man’s youth.
I go further back in time, and I remember sooty faces of children- on the platforms of railway stations and bus terminals. You must have seen them walk into the compartments of trains, entertaining passengers with songs and music from their mouth organ or harmonium. On other occasions, you would have seen them sitting on the platform, sharing a miserable looking bun.
Abandoned and deprived. Shunned and outcast. This is the story of their lives.
At night, you can see them sleeping on the pavements adjoining shops or the platforms of railway stations and bus terminals. That little piece of hard, harsh earth on which they sleep, is all they claim for themselves. Their bodies are draped in worn-out sheets that cover them from head to toe.
Like rows of corpses, ironically reflecting the malady of their lives, they hold on to the piece of earth that is their bed. Or should I say grave?