The Anticipated Stranger
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 indeed 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 their welcoming faces, belying the downpour, and leaden 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 bewildered captive 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, all but, 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 to the young woman.
‘She says she understands, and that it is enough for her you are here now, and that she can talk with you one last time.’
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.
'Look...I've never seen this lady; not before today. You are aware of that, for god's sake, aren't you?’
The young woman nods. ‘Of course I am,’ she replies. ‘I knew from the start; she was blind. Had been that way, ever since a child. Do you understand what I am saying? I also know that God, in all his wisdom, moves in mysterious ways.’
“The bruise will stop by...later. For now,
the pain pauses in its round; notes
the time of day, the patient’s temperature;
leaves a memo for the surrogate,
“What the hell do you think you’re
doing here? I mean...oh well, less said
the better. I’ll post this at the desk.
God will find the pattern and break it.”
‘Anticipated Stranger’ – John Ashbery