Rakesh, as the man introduced himself, was lying on a threadbare carpet spread along the pavement like a bed sheet. His head was plopped up on a makeshift pillow rustled out of his chappals.

A man without a house. How could he possibly stay at home, like all of us citizens were repeatedly instructed to do during the beginning of the coronavirus-triggered lockdown?

“This is my home,” muttered the grey-haired gentleman, while holed up one afternoon on a central Delhi roadside. He spoke his halting words in a rather uncertain tone, as if he were ready to be challenged for this assertion.

Rakesh, as the man introduced himself, was lying on a threadbare carpet spread along the pavement like a bed sheet. His head was plopped up on a makeshift pillow rustled out of his chappals.

He seemed at ease in a setting that, despite being so public, seemed very private, as if all these shaded trees, this green grass on the grounds beside the road, and the chirping of invisible birds were created for his comfort. Rakesh made it a point to disclose, without any prompting, that “once upon a time I used to live in Ambedkar Nagar, in a pakka kamra (concrete room).”

This encounter took place in late March, just a couple of days before the lockdown began. By then people were already being exhorted to… well, stay at home.

Rakesh faintly smiled and said he had heard of coronavirus and that he was scared of catching the infection. But then he looked up at the blue sky, while still lying down, and breezily said that “I’m still living and maybe God will look after me.”

He had walked over to this spot an hour before, after having a lunch of dal-chawal at Sai Baba temple, some distance away. “I always have my day-time meal outside the mandir… it is served free there everyday to many people like me.”

While walking to this spot, Rakesh said he had thought of “nothing except that I was tired and I wanted to lie down in some quiet place.”

This particular stretch, a side-road that goes past Humayun’s Tomb, was completely quiet. Totally free of traffic at the moment of this interaction. There was nobody else except for a dog sitting atop an unknown person’s centuries-old stone grave.

Rakesh informed he was a native of Ayodhya, in UP, and had been living in Delhi for some years.

He requested the interlocutor not to urge him to talk about his past. Instead, he explained that he sometimes works as a waiter in wedding banquets and parties “but now all is over because of the bimari (sickness) and I have no work.” He stayed silent when asked to explain if he meant by ‘bimari’ some health problem he was suffering from, or the general threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

He later got up, and sat cross-legged, casually clasping his palms. He spent the next few moments silently, and puzzlingly gazed upon his unusually long fingernails, as if they were lines of some difficult poem he was trying to understand.

“I will now walk for some time… at night I will sleep by the road or under the flyover,” he said, rolling up his carpet. Soon he walked away.

It’s been more than two months since then.

Mayank Austen Soofi

 

Courtesy Hindustantimes