Squatted on the ledge of his hand-pulled rickshaw, a man with light grey hair, in a chequered lungi peered at me as I looked at him through my phone’s camera. Behind him, from amidst the low-rises that lined Elgin Road, rose a lone slender structure with its higher balconies overlooking the Calcutta horizon.
Hand-pulled rickshaws, yellow ambassadors, the old metro and the trams: one by one I had clicked all of them and even sat in a few. Travelling alongside people afforded me an opportunity to look at them more closely—what they wore, where they worked, where they ate, drank tea or smoked cigarettes—and to dip myself momentarily into the daily-ness of their revving lives.
In front of me across the road, stood the glazed façade of Forum Mall flanked by Allenby road to its east. It was here on that evening when Salim had come walking earnestly from behind and interrupted my walk. He suddenly started talking about the grave condition in which his brother was. I had turned around to look at him even as my mind ran over the abruptness of this encounter. He wore a black kurta and light blue jeans. His hands moved quickly and his cheekbones and eyebrows grooved unevenly around the contours of his young face. I had never seen him before.
I steadfastly walked along the kerb trying to avoid him. But his voice kept growing louder and his pace, faster.
‘My brother will die! My brother will die! Allah, will be benevolent. Please help me. They are refusing to admit my brother. They want six thousand five hundred rupees for admission’, his voice shuddered, painfully obligated. It was not a voice acquainted to begging.
Undaunted, expressionless, I kept walking as if I never heard him. He would wander off eventually and find someone else, either for scamming or for help.
‘I need four thousand rupees. Please help me’, he said, taking out a few currency notes from the side pocket of his black kurta. ‘I have collected two thousand five hundred’, he added, showing me the two old thousand rupee notes crumpled in his fist.
‘I cannot help you. I don’t have the money’, I muttered breathlessly as we now walked faster. He frowned and I saw his eyes force a tear as they glistened under the white glow of the street lamps.
‘Ye dekhiye’, he said, pointing to a folded piece of paper that he took out from his jeans pocket and guided his fingers over the hastily written letters of the prescription. Pointing at the list of medicines, he took out another small piece of paper from his breast-pocket and showed me the words ‘B.G Hospital’ written in a clearer handwriting.
‘They have asked to shift my brother to this hospital. My brother will die, bhaijaan! They are charging six thousand five hundred rupees for the tests. My mother and I haven’t eaten for three days. I sold my phone. I also had a silver chain that I sold for eight hundred rupees’.
‘Where is your brother now?’
‘He is outside B.G. Hospital with my mother.’
It had been two years since I had met those three Marathi families walking down a street in Noida close to my college. The men walked slowly in front with canvas bags strapped across their shoulders and the women trudged behind, each holding a child in their arms. A young girl and a boy ran about impishly criss-crossing their parents and teasing their younger siblings.
Summoned to Delhi by a Contractor’s agent, the men had hoped to find work at a construction site. When they reached, they found that the agent had run away with their deposits. Dwelling on pavements across the city scouting for work, they had eventually run out of reserves in two weeks. That day as I was walking past them, a woman with a child in her arms strutted out of the column and lowering her eyes asked me to buy food for the children. The men told me their story while the women distributed the snacks I bought them with a few hundred rupees I had.
Just as I was about to leave, the men and the women again gathered around me and pled for money to go back home to Maharashtra. They promised to send back the money once they were home. It had troubled me then that I did not have the money. I called up a friend to borrow some.
‘Tumhara naam kya hai?’, I stopped and asked.
‘Salim, and my brother’s name is Mohammed Javed’, he replied in Hindi.
We were now nearer to the end of Allenby road. The blue-green of the late evening sky had now settled in the interstices between patches lit by street lamps and vehicle headlights. It wasn’t that I did not have the money, but I needed it. My grandfather had recently deposited a sum of forty thousand rupees in my account, part of which was to be used to pay fees of a workshop I was attending in Calcutta and the rest to last me for the remaining five months of a course I was pursuing in Bangalore. My mother had been saving for a few months now.
From in between the incessant ringing of two telephones, my mother often steals a moment to call me. She generally asks me about my day, at others she confides in me about something sore my grandmother had said. Sometimes the petite ardour of her dutiful words gives way to a sudden brusqueness followed by irreverent chatter. Speaking from behind the curved glass screen of her reception desk, in addition to giving appointments she advises a lot of people – those who are ill and those who think they are ill – about whether it would be beneficial for them to travel to the clinic or not. Patients! They are characteristically impatient everywhere. Towards the end and usually after the interruptions, she admonishes me for my expenditure (almost out of habit) and never forgets to remind me of my younger sister’s measured expenses. Occasionally while chiding me, the tiredness of years inhabiting the recesses of her being implodes like a dam and her quavering words plead unconscionably for respite.
As these thoughts rushed past my mind, it felt as if my stomach was pressed against my spine and my blood had become turbid. My palms clasped into fists and I restlessly stomped my foot. I looked stoically at Salim and wished he could see through. Instead I saw myself capitulating to the sanguinity of his gaze. The wetness in his eyes had now disappeared.
‘Aapne pehle kis haspatal mei apne bhai ko dikhaya tha?’, I asked gruffly.
‘SSKM. It is very close from here. Bas…’
‘Mujhe vahan lekar chaliye’, I instructed him.
A man’s handbag’s strap broke while he was crossing the road and pulled it just in time from coming under a minibus. Rows of hawkers sold fake jewellery, clothes, books and chaat on both sidewalks of the road. Maghreb’s faint call rose from somewhere behind the red and yellow buildings on the streets. Salim asked me my name and wondered if I was a Mussalman. I told him I wasn’t. I told him I was thirsty and we stopped at a tea shop. I bought two bottles of water and ordered two teas and a cigarette. He walked briskly and often walked in front as if making way for me through the crowd.
‘We stopped in Delhi at Nizamuddin and prayed at the dargah of Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli while on our way to Ajmer Sharif’, he said when I told him I was from Delhi. ‘We walk the whole route, from Sealdah to Ajmer, me, my brother, and our friends from my village and nearby villages, it’s a juloos, every year, for the Urs of Khwajah Garib Nawaz’.
‘Khwajah Garib Nawaz ke baare mei toh aapne suna hoga’, he asked. ‘Haan’, I said. The fact had taken me by surprise. Travelling the breadth of India on foot, that’s what the fakirs and the Sufis did, year after year, from across the sub-continent. Halting in Delhi while on their way to Ajmer, a further four hundred kilometres from the city.
As we walked, Salim seemed relaxed now. Through the lanes that were narrow he led me, always in front, himself evading taxis and two wheelers, turning back to look every time something passed us.
A warm acrid smell hung in the corridors of the Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial hospital. We climbed the first floor and entered a large hall with plastered cream coloured walls and low hanging fans. Two rows of beds and drip stands ran along the lengths of the hall and nurses sat behind a long wooden desk placed at its farther end. Salim scurried through the aisle holding the thin grey paper of the prescription. The patients slightly raised their heads as I walked past their bedposts following him.
‘Daktar babu kothai?’, Salim asked hurriedly.
Behind the desk, an open steel gate led into what seemed to be an anteroom for medicines.
‘He is inside. Please wait outside for five minutes’, the nurse replied in Bengali.
We came out of the hall into a corridor with arched roofs supported by pillars abutting the balustrade. A row of steel beds with drip stands stretched along the balustrade till the other end of the corridor. Families had gathered around some beds, while some patients slept here in the open. Ahead, bursts of vehicular horns and gurgling bus engines rustled the still air.
I stood by the balcony staring at the dark silhouettes of gulmohurs and palms planted alongside, within the compound wall. I had asked Salim to bring me to this hospital just so I could confirm the condition of his brother and verify the authenticity of the referral to B.G. As we had walked, a heavy indignation had settled upon me at every step. It was excruciating to be led by instinct alone without being able to rationalize the step I was about to take. The loss of agency was something I did not understand not just in parts but wholly.
By the time the last specks of that long evening carried into the night, the act had been done – and with a kind of brazenness symptomatic of teenage years, when the sense of adventure silently co-opts anxiety and trepidation of mother’s reproach.