Homeless in a Pandemic

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?

The rot of prosperity

Finally got down to sorting some of my old files and ended up looking at the piece below. I remember that September night which began nightly walks after dinner. They had an invisible feel about them, as though I melted into the darkness. Of course, it was not difficult to experience it as such since my clothing was inevitably dark to be as unobtrusive as possible. One phrase that kept popping up in my head through that long amble on familiar streets was the rot of prosperity. Partly due to the smells on the walk which registered dominantly as also the neon glare of shops and eateries bustling with people, spending. I haven’t been out in the night these last few weeks but if day time is any indicator, the streets will be desolate.

And letters back then were sent the old fashioned way 🙂

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It’s been many months since I walked and a while since I ventured out in the night. The dark of the night is so different from the dark of early dawn. Night time darkness is weary with noise and fumes of a mindless humanity. My tree friends also remain shut for the night. They curl their leaves and sleep while I make do with jazz in my ears.

My life is silent these days and words seem familiar in their written form rather than let loose on the wind. So, I write letters. Letters to stranger friends, the ones whose words and faraway presence somehow comforted me. I write letters to my daughters which may perhaps go out from all the mothers in the world to their daughters. Today, I wrote a letter to my daughter and one of the stranger friends, a woman I haven’t met yet. They couldn’t wait until morning so I went walking to the postbox I usually frequent. The clearing time mentioned on it is 1325 hours and my letters will sit at the bottom, perhaps with other letters.

Maybe I should write a letter addressed to the postman who clears that particular box. What would I write and tell him? I don’t know. I recall a story about a postman who discovered unsent letters when he retired and was distraught at the fact. I can’t seem to remember anything beyond that point, perhaps I didn’t finish the story. It’s quite possible. I’ve lived long enough not to suffer through books that don’t speak to me. If they have words meant for my eyes, they will find me somehow.

The letters dropped, the weather pleasant and the prospect of endless hours to myself led me to amble on roads I knew so well at one time. The streets were packed with headlamps and frantic drivers all rushing to their destinations. The food carts and stalls were doing brisk business and I watched people eating without really eating. I found myself behind young couples with cheap perfume and the unmistakable musk of lust. Somewhere, there was a dead animal behind the bushes and the fetid smell of rotting garbage. There was also the fragrance of a carpet of the cork tree’s flowers. Mild, just a hint masked by the haze of pollution.

I passed parked cars with their owners playing games, a paani puri wala chatting on the phone even as he whipped up the puris in quick succession, bikers speaking with 2 people behind them. There was barely anyone without the ubiquitous cell phone, me included although mine was in my pocket and on Spotify. Even this is distraction, music.

It’s a confusing worldview, this rot of prosperity.

 

Wandering…

And I wandered in the woods this afternoon. Unlike earlier when I would walk up to the entrance of the trail, today I drove into the clearing, the same one where young men would play cricket a couple of months ago. Most of them cadets from Kerala who would speak in Malayalam, not realizing I could follow everything they were saying. It would make me smile inside, their youthful bravado and the invincibility of that age even as I would disappear into the brown silences.

The trail has sprouted green in the last 50 odd days thanks to the occasional rains. The puppers on the trail have grown and the peepal saplings looked well tended. An old couple had planted three of them and they were watered by the gentleman everyday. I met him and his two gorgeous Alsatians too. These days his wife doesn’t accompany him. He leaves water for the strays and tends to the fledgling trees. We got acquainted on the trail and it was amusing that we live in the same compound but the trail was where we became familiar.

One of the three puppers

In the distance, I could hear a loud group of men and saw a few bikes. Earlier, one didn’t encounter them in person, only the aftermath of their drunken mess- broken bottles, cigarette stubs, takeaway containers and sometimes clothes too. It’s one of the unsavoury aspects of public spaces but years of getting out alone and in the dark have made me wary and taught me to steer clear of trouble.

Barefoot love!

The feet felt the ground after weeks and it was a coming home, the touch of the earth and the skies above. The birds were more fearless and didn’t take off when I walked close to them. We owe the creatures of our beautiful world more than an apology. How much have we ruined them, encroaching on their spaces? The irony is how we prize our own right to privacy and space. In lockdown, space has become a sore issue for those lucky enough to have a roof over their heads. Then, I think of millions of those stuck on the streets many hundreds of kilometers away from their homes. It makes me look at homes and what we really mean when we think of that sense called home. But that might mean a whole book! Later.

In the course of some volunteering work, I come across terrible accounts and worse still, images of these men, women, children and animals at times trudging home under a harsh summer sun. News trickles in even if I do my best to avoid it. There is a strange mix of emotions those pictures evoke but mostly it’s a sense of helplessness. These are men and women who have lived off the labour of their hands. Proud, self-reliant people who now have to ask for help which trickles to them, often not in time and not enough. Despite the terrible context of those photographs, I also can’t help but notice how many of them have wiry, strong bodies.

A couple of years ago, there was little Asifa who was brutalized and killed and she floated into my mind today. I remembered how devastated I felt then and how I roamed the days feeling such an ache. It bewildered me that no one else seemed to carry the same weight in their heart for the fragility of a small child. How could one not feel deep sorrow for her pain and that of her parents and community? She’s forgotten now, another statistic. Nothing really changed. Rapes still happen, the world still spins. Maybe I remembered her today so that I can remember that nothing comes out of feeling so deeply. It’s best to restrain those thoughts and see what can be done instead. And that too seems futile but we endeavour.

Now that lock down seems to be of no particular use, it felt alright to escape and let the magic of the woods work on a woman as she walked in its sun kissed heart.

words

I want to gather all the words from all the beautiful sentences and read them, with their curves and slashes, printed or handwritten. I want to let my eyes wander over their structure and form, balance and asymmetry, reach out and trace their shapes as though they are alive. I want to do all this before the light dims and my eyes go silent.

But then there are too many to gather, my heart and head can hold only so much. So, I watch them go by, some on a blinking screen, others in the smells of pages I will never turn. Some linger and yet others grow into words that will escape from my fingers. They hold memories of words tasted and shared, hidden and abandoned.

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Some of them roam in moonlit dawns and alight on blank pages

the moon on my floor_
reluctant lover of mine
denying always…

Others will fall into time

time yawns, swallowing
days, words, thoughts, dreams, silences
unending chasm…

Most | restrained |

A letter from Norway

Sarees brought me the love and friendship of many special people across the planet. Some of them lovers of the six yards, others not but all of them wonderful people. A few have grown to be friends I’ll love all my life. Some have also been correspondents over the last couple of years and I have enjoyed the slow pleasures of letters written in beautiful hands. Often these notes are accompanied by something handmade, in the case of a special sister of the soul, tea for two. 🙂

Most days, I go through life unconscious of my presence in anyone else’s life. But every once in a while, I receive an act of kindness which makes me feel overwhelmed. It is a surprise that one is thought of in private moments of the spirit of another person. One such happened today. I received images of a letter that was written about a couple of years ago in a train between Bergen and Oslo.

R discovered the notepad on which she had begun writing that letter to me recently and shared pictures of the pages today. I was deeply touched to know that someone remembered me on their travels, enough to write their deepest thoughts as they watched a white landscape hurtle past a silent window. The pictures through the glass speak of harsh winters although this was a trip in April or May. I’ve never seen snow, not yet and often wonder how it might be to experience the silence of a giant white blanket for months on end.

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Picture courtesy : R from her train ride between Bergen and Oslo

Letters though are a wonderful way to break that silence. They are a window into thoughts that are free from the constraints of conversation. Of course, they have their moods and colours. Sometimes playful, often contemplative, at others obscure and so on. But, generally, they tend to be a plane where there is a relaxation of our personas and an emergence of our person. Often they are about the mundane while at times the pen wanders to think about deep questionings and at still others they are simply a record of activities. It made me question why I write letters almost compulsively but that probably is a separate post.

In an age of instant news, instant sharing, I find an almost fierce need to protect the slow savouring of thoughts that belonged to a loved friend but could be relived in the reading of a letter. Perhaps it is a result of growing older and wanting the comfort of a touch of lives through paper, a medium that is comforting. Or maybe it is a need for a physical reminder of something that transcends distance and time. Most of the letters I have received have been from friends, very few from family. In my books, friendships are probably the best among different kinds of love.

As I type this, I realize that this too has turned into a letter of sorts, perhaps a reply to that letter written on a train miles and months away from here and now. Maybe that’s what this blog is too, one long endless letter. Thank you R for your gentle, compassionate touch in my life. It has been much the richer for your radiance.

Some letters are best received much beyond their writing.

Love

S.

Masha

Masha is 7, a pretty blue eyed 7-year-old who cannot read or write her name. She has a sister called Sasha, all of 11 who still sleeps at home. But Masha is out and about, she’s an early riser. Her mother is not home, hasn’t been all night and she has no father. Her sister has one though, she carries his name but he hasn’t been around. Masha is special so she doesn’t need one. Her mother says she’s named after all her foremothers. But Masha doesn’t know any of them.

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resident artist sketches Masha

Masha is happy being chirpy Mother Masha who knocks at the neighbours’ doors. She begins her visits soon after she brushes her teeth and ties a blue ribbon on her hair. She only goes out in her rainbow flip-flops and makes sure to leave the house open. Mother has told her that she is not old enough to get keys to the house.

Masha has a lot to talk about- the sun, the moon and potatoes, always the potatoes. She likes them mashed and with gravy, lots of gravy. She goes to all the houses in her block but no one opens the door today. She knows one house that never lets her go hungry. She saves it for the end and kicks off her shoes outside that blue home as she rings the doorbell.

She speaks to the tall man, looking up into his spectacled eyes with her blue, blue eyes and he is smitten as always. He wants to adopt her but how do you adopt a child with an absent mother? He wants to lift and twirl her in the air to hear her squeal in delight but it’s a pandemic and he’s afraid. So, he says, “Masha you cannot be outside your home” but she walks in and sits on her yellow chair. They sit apart, gentle giant and child talking about the sun and the moon and potatoes as always.

The man turns over his shoulder and calls out to his wife and says, “Honey, Masha is here” and like always she asks from inside her magical kitchen, “Masha, my love would you like some cake?” Masha says, “yes please, I’d love some”.  The woman cuts a giant slice, piles it with cream for little Masha who loves it just so. She eats it happily as two adult hearts melt.

 

 

The girl in the red plaid dress

Another morning out. I should give up the pretense of shopping for supplies and see it for what it is, the need to walk. In the absence of ambles in the woods or jaunts around the neighbourhood, I found myself picking threads from little vignettes that played out on the street or the voices and noises from households, some of it, violent. Some threads were ripped from an unruly heart, some from cold waters of reason and much unravelled in letters that remain piled on my desk. But, this is about today and a walk under a summer sun with my beautiful bald pate, a half masked face and skin that drank sunshine.

It’s been a couple of days since the hair came off and with it, everything that weighed this old head down. I suddenly feel ageless and in a manner of speaking, outside of the limitations of gender. It’s liberating in such a primal way as though the rules of convention don’t apply anymore. Perhaps, this is what monks and nuns feel? Them of the beatific smiles and melodious voices.

I’m out in a running singlet and find that my feet want to let go and break into a jog. It’s that kind of a day when the body feels its sinewy strength and there is pleasure to be taken in being alive and strong. I feel the ripple of energy in my back and legs as I move. It reminds me of long walks on the beach with the sun on my face and water lapping against my feet and I wander into memories of the sea and it’s incredible silence. The next face I see reminds me that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and all those images of sunkissed shores are a long way off.

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So I walk, soaking in sights of a changed world. I walk past a school with one hundred windows- all shut, cross a much dead cat with dried skin and ashen ribs that have no takers, watch winding lines outside liquor shops and cops who have given up trying to tame the crowds. The trees are in bloom and I hug one of the Indian Cork ones. They’ll sway in monsoon winds in a few months and their lovely blossoms will make beautiful scents. Again memories, of night time walks in my invisibility cloak. There are people out and about as though it is time to shop for Diwali, most in masks but else in thick groups. Mostly men, some women and no children except the little masked girl in a red plaid dress, walking with her father.

It was a stark reminder of the missing children of a pandemic. And I wanted to mourn for the ones with loving families and those with hateful ones, the ones with food aplenty and those who go hungry, the ones with lovely homes and those who hustle on streets, the ones with friends and those friendless, the ones who dream in colour and those who live nightmares, the ones with pretty smiles and those with haunted eyes, the ones with grand plans and those without, the ones who get cuddles and those who get beaten. I wanted to grieve for all the little children and the unborn who’ve inherited a blighted planet.

Sometimes, the need for a mourning as such is to mourn the fragility of human lives and a poem springs-

I feel the urge to keen

lament in beautiful tongues

that I don’t understand

I want to partake

the bewilderment

Of a species as it mourns

I want to

share their grief and

walk to distanced funerals

And along with all this

I want to keen

for losses of another kind

That of little children

and a lost summer of

urchins and the home schooled

The little masked girl haunts my today. She was the only child I have seen outside in all these days of lockdown. Perhaps it is also a feeble hope after 40 days of suspension that a little girl appears in a red plaid dress.

The debris of a day

another day comes to a close
another awakening of insomnia
the day’s debris is a small pile
spent pens, a coffee mug, tired screens
remaining pieces of the day
came out to play and went back
these have stayed to give company
as I put an unruly day to bedelsewhere music wafts, pleasing…
the youngling has a good ear
her day rises as mine pretends to end
making us a household of constant churn
of art and poetry, movement and silences
inhabiting isolation fully, deeply alone