That evening in Calcutta, when I was sitting in the Cha Bar of Oxford book store at Park Street.
My table overlooked the busy footpath outside. I was watching the little silver bells of rain, spluttering like an assortment of seasonings in a wet wok.
I was enjoying the rains, sipping the jasmine tea and nibbling at the banana muffins.Outside, on the squelchy street, the cars rushed by, splashing through the sleet of rain, spraying white foam in the misty air.
For a little while, life felt perfect.
Then I saw him. A very old man, bent at the waist, doubled up with life that had passed him by leaving behind its bundle of unlived moments on his back. His beard was scraggly, grey and dirty. Hair matted. And he was wearing a torn lungi with a sleeveless vest that had more holes than a sieve.
He was sifting through a pile of garbage, ubiquitous even in the most posh localities of Calcutta. I watched him. Riveted by the history, writ large on his face that bespoke of a life full of nothing else than pain and misery. I thought probably he was searching for something he has lost or has dropped. Then I saw him picking up a half eaten sandwich from the pile. He grabbed it up and eagerly bit into it.
His bony jaws moved jerkily as he chewed the stale bread, clutching at the insufficient morsel of food, like a hungry child claws at its mother’s breast.
My cup of tea turned cold. So did my body.
I froze, like hoarfrost.
I left the table and rushed out.
Outside the bookstore, I looked for him. The spot was empty. The pile of garbage was still there. The cigarette butts, twisted tissues, crumpled burger wrappers, banana peels, orange rinds, the swarming flies... The last bit of hardened sandwich crust was lying there on the floor. It must have been too hard to chew perhaps, and he had thrown it back.
But he was nowhere. I stepped out, on the street. Rain fell on my head. All I saw was grey fogginess. The slanting rain was still falling relentlessly, filling up the puddles on the street.
It must have taken me exactly two minutes of settling the payment for my tea and rushing out. In two minutes he was gone. As if swept away by the rain. As if he was never there. But that forlorn crust of bread was the mute witness that he had been there. That he had stooped onto that pile...
All I wanted to do was buy him a cup of hot tea. A fresh sandwich. Talk with him, maybe. My infinitesimal bit of humanity.
I still cannot remove his image from my mind. Like a black sludge he is lodged inside my conscience.
© Nazia Mallick