May 06, 2005

Three men

You hear him before you see him. There's a soft jingle of bells from some distance away, over the clack-clack of the local. It intrigues you. You can't tell what's causing it, but you hear so many strange sounds on the train, what's another one, you go back to your reading. The train stops, the bells stop too. Train starts, they start up again, only much louder. Suddenly the sound is here, in your compartment.

You look up from your book and see him. He has anklets on. They jingle as he walks, otherwise silent, through the compartment. That's the sound you have been hearing. He has on a clean white shirt with a pattern of some kind, tidy looking shorts. His hair is neatly combed. A can hangs on a string around his neck. He has no arms.

No arms, and he says nothing. Is he mute too? He looks at you intently. He needs the bells to attract your attention, the can to hold the few coins you dig hurriedly from your pocket. Then he moves on. You watch him as the train slows for the next station. He stands near the door, a sight to make your heart jolt. What if the train lurches? The rest of us find it hard enough to hold our place, and we have arms and hands. But he stands quietly, then steps off just before the train stops, walks to the next compartment and steps in. The jingling recedes.

You're lost in thought for minutes. How does he eat? Clean himself? Wear his shirt and shorts? Put that can around his neck? Do any of the myriad things we do through the day without a thought, because we have arms? He has none!

I usually hear the second man before I see him, too. That's partly because it's ordinarily at night that he turns up. It's also partly because he sits in the shadow on the side of the road. But it's mainly because he is not easy to see. He's very small. Even when I actually catch sight of him, even though I've seen him several times now, I have to remind myself why he looks so normal, yet so abnormal and small. He has no legs.

He calls to me between puffs at his bidi, his arms reaching out urgently, beseechingly. But there's something almost genial in his call, as if he's saying: "Give me a rupee, but hello there, how're things?" The times I do give him a coin, I see his little cart. It's just the same height as him as he sits -- do legless people sit? -- against the wall.

As with the man on the train, I wonder as I walk on. How does he manoeuvre himself into his little cart? Where does he live? How far does must he propel himself in that contraption? How does he get up steps, or onto a pavement?

The shortsighted old man appeared overnight, as if he had grown there. From under a large, tattered, yellow-and-white parasol, from behind thick glasses, he peered out at the world. All his belongings surrounded him on the triangular traffic island at the junction: bits of cloth, a worn blanket or two, a plastic bag or three, a plastic bottle.

He didn't look as if he could move; he never did. At least, not during the day. At night, he must have. The small lumps of excreta at the edge of the island indicated as much. He half-lay, half-sat there through the day, the rest of us stepped around him and on to wherever our lives led us. Once, I took him a few sandwiches. He looked at them, then up at me to say: "Please bring me something else too, I've had enough bread."

He was there two, maybe three weeks. Then, when I got off the bus one evening, something had changed on the traffic island. Strange, because all his stuff was still there. But where he used to be, there was just a small depression in the blankets.

Rumours swirled around about a posse of policemen, acting on complaints from residents of the surrounding high-rise buildings, who had picked him up that morning. Where had they taken him? What would happen to him? What about his belongings?

No answers. Only that depression.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, between 2x2 tables and counterfactuals you have got my eyes spinning counterclockwise at 2x speed.

Having said that, I like the silver/bronze comparison. Reminds me in turn of some survey I remember reading that, found that the first honking when a traffic signal turns green is generally from the car that is third in line. The first guy sees the light and moves, so he won't honk. The second guy can see the first one about to move, so he doesn't honk. The third guy knows the light has turned, but can't see the car ahead of him moving yet, so he honks. SOmething like that.

Do I get a silver medal for this exposition?

Suhail said...

Naa..naa..the third guy honks - not because the second car is not moving - because he can't HEAR the 2nd guy honking. Plus, most of the times, the poor chap doesn't know that he is the 3rd in line, in which case going by Indian honking laws, he simply must honk anyway :D

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