These days when I see open spaces, there’s a sudden desire to run and disappear into its expanses for a long time, perhaps for good. And if I give that fantasy some wings, I imagine that I’d make a leap for it and somehow magically the world will close behind me as though I jumped through a portal. But that’s just the mind running riot.
Much as I love using the excuse of supplies for a long meander, it is also an ache to see a world of masked people, barricaded streets and downed shutters. Last evening, I drove out about 6km, the furthest since lock down just to get a sense of the outside world. Traffic was sparse, both human and vehicular. Cop patrols were quite visible with their loudspeakers warning the few open establishments to close for the day. An entire species is living indoors. Mostly. But there are those who fall through the cracks of having homes or even walking miles towards homes. These are the unwanted, unseen wanderers of the streets like B, the homeless man on my 10k route.
He loved crosswords and I’d see him with a pen and newspaper in the mornings. It’s still not clear how he got a newspaper every single day but he’d be busy. We’d smile at each other, sometimes I’d wave out and he became one of my visual milestones. His smile had a warmth to it. His assortment of a footpath home varied slightly with the change in seasons. Rainy days, there was a makeshift tent of sorts. Winter mornings, he would lean against a wall with a blanket around him. Towards the end of my running days, he even managed a mattress. I remember thinking he seemed truly happy. There was a certain lightness in his face and being. I was fairly certain that he could have had a different life if he chose to.
His eyes were sharp, intelligent and always had a twinkle. Although I wanted to hear his story, I never ended up stopping because I was inevitably in a rush to return home in time to get the kid up for school. And then it was too late. He died a few years ago, someone broke a bottle on his head. Wrong place, wrong time. I got to know his story from a lady who used to run a Tuesday kitchen for the homeless. She’s got quite a few stories of the streets and is someone I admire deeply. But P’s story is for another day. B used to be in the armed forces but a nasty temper ensured he was discharged. A few years later, his family threw him out. Anger has that effect, left unchecked, it ravages lives.
Yesterday, I was reminded of him when I saw another homeless man not too far from where B used to hang out. This old man wore similar dirty white pajamas and a kurta and was busy feeding the birds. It was a joyous action, his scattering feed for the birds. A little ahead, there was a man who had probably lost his mind a long time back. Barely clothed and with his hands stuck down the front of his pants, he swayed and walked as though drunk. There are many such fringe dwellers and people see through them.
One that is still very vivid is a thin, bare chested man asleep on the road with maggots in an open wound. Another recent image is of a woman with bare breasts picking off something from her saree which lay around her as I walked along a busy road one evening after class. And then this morning, amidst the beautiful trees and flowers, I saw a man wasted on the pavement, probably blacked out after a drunken spree. Addiction, homelessness, insanity make them invisible to the world, often even the cops leave them alone.
The overwhelming feeling is tenderness at such times, a desire to cover them if only to protect their selves from not being seen. And in the times of a pandemic, where do these destitute children of a tortured planet go?