The Anticipated Stranger
Tue, 23 Jun 2015
His last night in Mumbai...eight o’clock, and he’d be on his way home...or so he told the barman on leaving, after a couple of drinks too many. The rain soaked him to the skin as he made his way through the polluted, winding back streets, to Tilak Bridge and Dadar Station; glances at the luxury apartments en route. To think those lucky sods up there in their penthouses, were looking down on all this, and obviously couldn’t give a flying fuck as to how the other half of the population lived. It had really got to him...that very first time...but over the years, he’d become hardened, or so he thought, to the misery and poverty that is so much an integral part of everyday life in Mumbai; a city of contrasts...as most are – worldwide. The Monsoon season had recently begun though. Something he’d been lucky enough to avoid in previous visits; hence his imminent departure.
As he approaches the station, he could have been forgiven for thinking it was a sequence in an art-house film set. An inadequate shelter, the bridge, but any port in a storm, he supposes, as women and children, sit chopping raw bamboo shoots near a mosquito riddled pool of stagnant water. Above them...makeshift plastic sheets, bent low by the deluge, where their men make repeated futile attempts to ignite wet wood. A woman feeds her baby; the infant – naked, bar a cloth to try and hide the many boils on its skin, and her other kids, vigorously gesticulating at passing cars for half-drowning them in spray. Who could blame them – the poor little tykes? Despite repeated abortive requests from the World Health Organisation, no official shelters for the homeless exist in Mumbai.
It’s only then, he feels a tap on his shoulder. Two middle-aged women – their brightly coloured saris, and welcoming faces, belying the downpour and woebegone skies, gently tug at his arm. A younger woman, standing nearby who apparently speaks English, intervenes.
‘They want you to go with them,’ she explains. It is a matter of some urgency, but will only take a short while.’
In one of those moments when one’s heart rules one’s head, he agrees – stepping over remnants of people’s lives, as they lead him away from the throng to a quieter corner.
On rush matting they had laid her...the old lady. Her breathing – laboured; eyes like those of a sparrow in a predator’s grasp, and it was clear she was dying. With all her remaining strength, she smiled – crooked her finger, and beckoned to him.
‘She wants to touch you,’ the young woman explains. ‘She is overjoyed, but needs to make certain you really are here, and that this is no dream. And, she would also like you to tell her why you didn’t come sooner. She had almost given up hope.’
‘Tell her...I was delayed, unexpectedly, and that I am so sorry. Many things obstructed my path...life has a habit of creating obstacle courses for us, doesn’t it?’ he says, directing the latter of his remarks the young woman’s way.
‘She says she understands, and that it is enough for her to know you are here with her now.'
An hour later, in her sleep, the old lady passes away; his hand still cradling hers.
Gently, he lets go, and wipes his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt.
‘It’s good she’s at peace now. Look...I don’t what to sound heartless, but I really do have to go; the proverbial train to catch. No idea in the world who she mistook me for. I’d never seen her before in my life, nor she, me...not to my knowledge anyway.'
‘I know that to be true,’ the young woman says. ‘She was blind – since birth.’