Monday, February 22, 2010

The Last Walk

While prejudices of race, religion and sexual orientation steadily crumble in the rain, there seems to be one small taboo remaining: The funny way in which people react when they go into a room and see you lying down. They get an idea into their head that they have to whisper, or treat you as if you were unwell, or a trifle out of sorts. Few indeed are there in England who will visit you at home without drawing up to an embarrassing halt when they see you're lying down.

In India, however, lying down is much more a part-and-parcel, a deeper embedding into the warp and woof of life than in the green pastures of England. In warmer climes you can stroll into a hall to see a lady cleaning brass work on the right, an infant swinging from the ceiling in a muslin sling in the middle, and a man lying down and sleeping at the back of the room, whilst another guy might be simply reclining on the floor and chatting in a desultory way; yet in England — even in the chill of deep mid-winter — you may find yourself categorised as out-of-synch if you're not up on your haunches and alert to all comings, goings and musings.

In India my resting often turns into a sprawling dance: I'll shift my position so as to re-angle my leg; then with the end of my prodder I'll give a gentle tap upwards to my carer's knee. By magic his leg will immediately bend, slowly rising to the vertical, as if it were a hydraulic lift. A tap in the opposite direction, and the hoist will stop. Sometimes others will come along for a sprawl, and two or three sets of legs will ascend to lean against the wall, proclaiming silhouettes of forked tree-trunks with miniature toe buds wiggling playfully in the breeze of the fan.

Lying supine is not, however, restricted to the bedroom and locked door: It spills out into the verandah and the Dinnai* and it lops along the path and field. Day or night I may stroll along on my constitutional, and invariably meet a gentleman in the Land of Nod, as we see here on our leisurely stroll.

This gent seemed so peaceful, with his feet in just the right position, gently resting in the spokes of his bike. Good ah'-noon, Sir: I know exactly how you feel; please don't even think of shifting yourself – no need to stir – for you'll never be able to get back into that position if you nudge your foot away from the stiff wire of the wheel!

And look at the serene expression on the face of this gent; I wonder where he is and how he fares, a wee pillow under his right arm, and nought but cold stone beneath his head.

Moving on in our walk, and further on in time, we see the deeper sleep of age. All this man's belongings form a pillow to cushion his head. No-one will disturb him during his rest. He's doubtless left his family, and surely left sad, unspoken tragedies behind... I wondered how he lived his life and how he made a living, how he fared. He travelled well. Now see how organised he is, with all his belongings tied up in a sack, with his pillow and his sandals on the bench!

We wander on, in timeless silent mode. Before long the scenery’s changed, and we're away from the countryside and back to the shrieking, clanking conurbation, with mad bikes and madder lorries rushing past us at break-neck speed, missing our slender frames by inches. I want to get home, I want to rest, to slumber in the silence of my quiet bed, I want a spot of stillness in this manic rush.

As if my thoughts had taken shape, I spy a bundle left upon the remnants of a pavement; right outside a chemists shop. I pass it by, then feel a pull. It is an inner urge — a tug which draws me back to where the bundle is. I ask ‘what's that?’ and looking at the heap, my friends look too, to see the spectacle which brings me to a halt.

“He's dead”, my friend said, “Here he came, because for him the road of life was at its end. Shall we leave a little money? The authorities will come along in the morning and take the body off. The ones who do this job get little pay.” I empty the contents of my pockets onto his cloth, about seven Rupees, 11pence or perhaps a couple of dimes in value, wishing that I’d carried more. I was sad and glad, yet also horrified to see the people hurrying to-and-fro, oblivious of the situation, yet aware enough to leave him be. I look and look, fancying I see a glimmer of hope in a slight breath; my friend denies it – then it’s there! ~ there’s definitely a little life left in the bundle!

I cast an appealing look towards my friend: to take him to our local doctor, to call an ambulance, to tell the Police? Yet straight away my plea falls flat. What would they do? Who could ever take him in? This was his path, and now for him the journey was at its end. What difference could a little breath make now?

I leave him, imagining how once he was a little boy playing marbles in the street with other boys, with mother, father, uncle, sister, brother. All now gone, alone, friendless: little brought in and next to nothing taken out. And yet, paradoxically, he was fine and so was I.

So were we all. It was the way it was, the way it had to be, and everything had worked out as it should.

= = = = = = = = = =

*Dinnai: A kind of stone couch attached to the front of your house. Strangers may sit there without permission or leave, and you can welcome any people there. Often, Visitors on Dinnais may become quite good friends, and be served with refreshments, even if they are never invited into your house.

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