Saturday, March 15, 2014

The little woman in the niche

I live in a city of refugees. It is one of Calcutta's deepest truths, possibly its biggest challenge. People both born poor and impoverished by their circumstances find their way to this city and try to live out what lives they can. Some find work, some others pull themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps. An overwhelming number end up begging on the streets. As a student I never had spare change, so I promised myself that when I earned my own living I would show more charity. However I soon learnt not to give the children and the able-bodied money, mostly because they rarely get the money they earn through begging.

On the way to our Metro station, I noticed a little old woman who sat in the half shelter of the closed doorway of an old building on Russa Road. She wore a widow's saree, that is a saree that is all white with a narrow border without the colours red, yellow, orange etc and never seemed to make much money. When I eventually mentioned her to Vicky I discovered that he too had been in the habit of giving her a coin or two every day. She sat in her niche, staring into space with empty eyes that must once have been pretty. She looked like a tiny little grandmother who should have by rights been living with a family that cherished her. Instead, she sat out on the footpath in rain and shine, regardless of all the people rushing past her. She didn't even bother to beg; she merely sat in her place with one palm open in her lap, lost in her private world.

There is a row of old-fashioned shops off that footpath, selling things like paint and packaged snacks and hardware. I once asked a few shopkeepers about her, on a particularly nasty day I think, and they shrugged and said she never spoke but that she was always there. I noticed though that in their own ways they kept an eye on her. They would never let any of the street louts rough her up, for example. Once when her outstretched hand tripped a passer by and he started shouting, they calmed him down, sent him on his way and then checked on her.

The only time I saw her respond to her surroundings was when we once walked past with Rahul, then three or four, and instead of handing her the money ourselves, gave it to him. He looked curiously at her and, in that compassionate way very young children have, put the money carefully into her palm, touching it as he did so. She turned her gaze towards him, looking at him and then, with her shaking hands, blessed him, touching him on his head. It was a gentle moment in the madness of the commuter rush. Back then I used to be a mother who rushed to keep him clean when unclean hands touched him but I could no more dust away any possible dirt from her palms than I could tell Rahul that she was a dirty old woman and he mustn't touch her.

Time passed. We continued to give her money, occasionally through Rahul if he happened to be with us, and she always acknowledged him. We stopped our daily commutes as first Vicky and then I returned to our home offices. We didn't pass that way very often. A few years ago I realised that I never saw her any more. I asked a shopkeeper and he said she'd stopped coming. Then I saw her again, back at her spot, looking shabbier and even more lost than before, if such a thing were possible. And then she disappeared for good. I wondered what had happened to her and hoped she had died.

I remember her because I used to wonder how I would have appeared in her circumstances. When Vicky told me he gave her money too, everyday, it reminded me of the man I'd fallen in love with who seemed to disappear in the daily stresses of our domestic life. Rahul's little interactions with her were one more chapter in the big book of little ways in which strangers responded to him. He has always been a little boy who exasperates his friends and well-wishers, but something about him draws out the best of unknown people. They give him seats, offer him sweets, smile at his conversation, bless him when he isn't looking. He has always been rather shy and wary of strangers, so these little episodes are never quite expected but they keep occurring and always have. He reminds me of my brother, blessed beyond others in the ways that matter.

Unlike that little old woman.

This was in response to The Old Gent and His Violin by Evie. You should read that too.


dipali said...

Such an evocative post. There used to be a little old woman wearing dark glasses, who sat at a particular spot on Raja Santosh Road, whom I would often pass by on my morning walk. I'd try to remember to carry some coins to give her, and always wondered about her, there so early in the morning......

Thinking Cramps said...

This made me so deeply sad. It's so beautifully described it's left an ache in me.