I sometimes wonder about the man in the photo above. What problem was he wrestling with that made him put everything down and sit on the street, looking almost like Rodin’s Thinker? I hope I’m wrong; he may have just been taking a nap. 🙂
The other day, I happened to send to a friend a picture of the person who comes home to collect our trash. He was standing outside the door, wearing his cap at a jaunty angle. He cut a rakish figure, and I was experimenting with my smartphone camera’s capabilities. I clicked and sent the photo, and my friend asked, “What is his name?” An unusual question, but that’s not what I was thinking. This man has served us for the past two years, but I didn’t know his name. I felt ashamed.
We barely acknowledge the existence of this class of people, people who have managed to lift themselves off the street but are still of the street in spirit. We don’t recognize their individuality. We prefer to look through them, sometimes at them, but never meet their eyes. What are we scared of? A touch for money?
Early this year I became friendly with a watchman stationed at the house of a doctor who is away most of the year. The house is set in sprawling grounds, and has a garden that attracts butterflies. The day I saw a Blue Mormon sailing over the compound wall I knew I had to gain admission to the grounds. The watchman was most cooperative and understanding; I’ve found that the camera is a great dissolver of boundaries. I had the free run of the garden.
A month or so later he asked me to take photos of him. I said of course. After the few minutes he needed to change into his elaborate uniform, I took a couple of pictures of him. He wanted three laminated copies; I told him that I’d arrange it, and promptly forgot all about it. He kept reminding me, but I could never find time to go to the studio. Annoyed one day by his persistence in asking for the photos (he even came to my office one day), I abruptly asked what the urgency was. He explained.
He had three daughters, and his wife had died when they were still toddlers. He raised the girls all by himself, educated them, and found them husbands. One daughter, a nurse in the Gulf, married a KSRTC conductor. This man proved to be a wastrel and drunkard; all the money she sent him was spent on drinking bouts with like-minded companions. He lost his job one day for being drunk on duty. This daughter died of cancer, leaving behind two young sons, and my watchman-friend believes she fell ill because of grief and worry over her husband’s irresponsible behavior. The other two daughters are alright. Two photos he would send to his two daughters, and one he would keep for himself.
The watchman sends a lump sum every month to his unemployed son-in-law to help him raise his two grandsons. In fact, that is why he has come to distant Ernakulam from his home in Vandi Periyar to work as a watchman; he needs the money to send to his son-in-law. His two daughters also pitch in; between the three of them, they send a sizable amount. But his son-in-law keeps demanding more, and the watchman confesses this has broken his spirit. He has twice attempted suicide. Living alone as he does, he wonders why he should continue. I have no words of consolation for him.
The next day, I handed over the three laminated photos to him. He asked me how much I’d paid; I told him to forget it.
Similar to my watchman story is this cobbler story from The Hindu: Where the Poor Are Fighting a Losing Battle
A few days after this encounter with the watchman, I happened to see the trash man outside my house. I looked at him and smiled. He smiled back uncertainly. I then asked him his name. I could tell he was surprised, but pleased.
“Narayanan,” he said.
Who are the invisible people in your life?