Above all the humanity
- The intersections at the overhead bridges were never meant for encounters. They were meant for the people to pass by, hurriedly without interfering with the flow
Sep 5, 2014-
A few days ago, I had an encounter with humanity. I came back home and forgot about it. It took me a few more days—of exhaustion and emotional meltdowns —to remember it again. I went to my book rack, on which the book spines were gathering dust, and looked for it. And there it was—behind the fiction collection, beside the book on philosophy, on top of an illustrated children’s book—A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I flipped through the book, and just below “For Freny” was written, in my handwriting: The world is within this book.
The overhead bridges of Kathmandu have a world of their own. The stairs lead to stories that are perhaps told but never listened to. The landing feels fragile and the bridge frail with the hardships laid out for display. First, the blind musician—with his maadal and a bowl. A few men have gathered around him; some eyeing the girls who pass by, emitting a chuckle here and there; some holding on to their mobile phones, waiting for the call that is going to define their lives; and some staring at the ceaseless traffic of humans and machines. I sometimes like to stop and retrace my steps—in my mind—and wonder if anything has changed in the time that I climbed the stairs and started retracing my steps.
Then there are the street vendors, with an assortment of essentials—purses, razors, chargers, socks, jeans, bottles, masks, shoes, and toys—who are in a perpetual flight-mode. The vendors and the police ritually perform a game of cat and mouse. But now that I want to write about them, I have nothing too grand to say about that except evoke these visuals, because perhaps, I really do not care. I do not really give them a second thought—they just exist. It does not matter if I write about them, or if I try to make some sense out of their experiences. It is enough that they struggle—I do not have to struggle to understand their struggle.
Or maybe I have to but I do not put in the effort.
The intersections at the overhead bridges were never meant for such encounters. They were meant for the people to pass by, hurriedly without interfering with the flow, and maybe, brushing elbows. When they do brush against each other, I am hit with the realisation that except for the temporary pain of these unintentional encounters, we don’t really connect. This, on the bridge, is where I realise the thresholds of our compassion, humanity, and altruism get pushed farther and farther. This is where we exchange glances but never see. We bump into someone but never hug. We run, race, walk faster, and move on.
The climb downstairs, which you will have to make at one point, is where I start losing balance, as I come across a man with a bandaged limb and a wounded head, a thin woman with a sickly child. And feet. Feet with colourful shoes on. You can know the destination of individuals by the pairs of shoes they wear. The pointed synthetic leather ones are for offices, high heels are for parties, slippers for shopping, chappals for wandering. You are probably wondering why instead of talking about the beggars, I digress to the feet. Matching the shoes to their destinations is the game that saves me from feeling guilty since I never drop a dime on the laid-out bowls, and from the righteous of having dropped a coin too—from feeling anything.
One particular day, I get off from the bus, with my purse dangling by my side. My office is a five-minute walk from the stop. No overhead bridges to cross but a minute’s walk to reach the zebra crossing. And right ahead, under the shade of a sidewalk tree, sat a man. He was wearing a dhoti and a light sky-blue shirt.
He had a few things lying around—a plain white shirt, a few gunnysacks and a bowl. His face looked charred from the heat, and on what used to be a left eye was a patch of permanently stitched eye-lid. He usually sits there on his designated space, under the tree’s shade, right next to the zebra crossing. A strategic location, I think to myself. But a few people pass by him, and no one offers him anything. A woman stops before the crossing, takes out a coin and drops it in the bowl. I look at her feet. Slippers.
I am anticipating this momentary encounter. Images of the overhead bridge race through my mind. I try not to think about guilt and righteousness. I need to make a decision without making it about myself. I wish I were back on the overhead bridge. I could run away under the guise of having important places to get to. There is nothing that makes you feel as close to self-loathing as this instant. I think about Om and Ishvar, the father and the son in Mistry’s Fine Balance who lose everything, and end up becoming the vision drawn on the paper by the Beggarmaster.
And as I make a left turn to cross the road, the beggar under the tree looks at me and smiles.
Published: 06-09-2014 09:00