Monday, August 19, 2013

A Chain of Events To Help A Lost Soul

     In a city of almost ten million, Bangalore evokes a strange sense of awareness about time and all the small coincidences in life, how they string together as events in the lived experience.  This awareness essentially makes you realize how your life, each day and moment, can be dramatically altered by one event, determined by it even.  We can live one day in a million ways.  Today, I felt particularly aware of time and this connection of events. 

     We round the corner on the bike, coming to the final bend that leads out to Hosur Main Road.  Sanjeev swerves the bike somewhat and immediately pulls over to the side and stops.  “We have a tire puncture,” he tells me, “get off.”  That’s interesting.  Just an hour ago we had amazing luck by narrowly missing our bike being towed for illegal parking in Electronic City.  I was just sitting down on the bike to leave when a tow truck abruptly pulled up, stopped in the middle of the road, and let out two guys who walked around our bike and us and began hastily removing the other three bikes parked on the side of the road.  Just 30 seconds later, and we would have been attempting to bribe the tow guys to give us our bike back.  As we drive away from the tow truck and the men, I tell Sanju that Shiva must be watching over us, and we laugh about the fact that someone is actually enforcing laws in this city.  

     But now, our luck seems to have run out.  I get off the bike not at all surprised that we have a flat.  About a half hour ago we were driving along what has got to be the worst road in all of Bangalore.  A four-foot high pile of broken bricks lay in the middle of the road, and to avoid driving through the water filled massive lengths of potholes, we instead drove over a patchwork of fist sized jagged rocks.  The second trip through the rocks probably did the trick.  It is amazing at all that we manage to keep our vehicles intact and running for all the beatings they take from the roads of this city. 

     The crater road stunt was done all in an attempt to find an adequate place to eat our skipped breakfast.  I felt like South Indian and was in luck to find that a chatt restaurant was serving a well prepared Southern variety lunch, a big steel plate filled with enough small bowls of different subjees, sambar, rasam, and dahi to fill up even the hungriest of souls.  Sipping cardamom tea after food, I helped Sanjeev fill out the greeting cards to his sisters, stuffing a 500 rupee note in each one.  August 20th is Raskha Bundhun, better known as Rakhi – a festival acknowledging the relationship between brothers and sisters.  Days earlier, Sanjeev and I took forever to pick out unstitched salwar suit materials for each one of his four sisters to send them in celebration of Rakhi.  Finding cards for them was an almost unattainable goal, but after asking around at a couple of small stationary stores in the area, we found ourselves in the hot and unventilated second floor of a grocery store, with apparently the only greeting card display available in the city.  The card stand looked like it has never once been organized, and we spend roughly 15 minutes sweating and searching for relevant cards in the mess.  On the short ride from the grocery store to the restaurant (and over that nasty road) I somehow lose one of the cards.  Not wanting to waste valuable time to get another, I forfeit the “friends” card with two ugly little dogs on it that I had bought to send Kristie. 

     Cards filled out, and tea finished, we start back toward Hosur Road to visit the courier’s office and send it all out.  The sun manages to peek out of the clouds after four full days of nonstop rain.  I feel unexpectedly light as it warms my back.  It would have been even more enjoyable if we didn’t get a flat and have to walk the bike to a service shop on Hosur.  We walk for about five minutes before we see that the first puncture shop is closed (it is mid-day after all).  An auto guy with a backseat full of happily waving kids stops and tells us that there is another puncture shop further up the road.  At this point another man approaches Sanjeev speaking in a language I cannot identify, though it is clear that he is asking for help.  Like most people from his poor class, he is utterly too thin, clothes hanging off him, looking as though they haven’t been washed for some time.  His hair is thick and jet black, I take him to be in his early thirties, but his face is worn and deeply sad, and it is hard to look away from him.  Sanjeev listens to the man but wants to dismiss him as a drunkard, another one of the men living in this state that have fallen prey to drinking away what little money they make.  We continue walking, and he follows us persistent to ask for help.  I tell Sanju that I feel bad and that I want to give him some cash, but I can see that he doesn’t believe what this man says, and I catch the word police in Sanjeev’s reply to him.  I try my best not to look perturbed.  Living here, you have to learn to ignore beggars, especially if you’re white.  Giving money to everyone that asks would leave you broke, and people can and will take advantage of you if you let them.  I have had kids beg from me and then get angry and argue when I refuse to give them cash but offer to buy them something to eat instead. Somehow though, I feel this guy is different.  The look on his face reflects his hard lot in life.  I know however, that it would make Sanjeev angry to give him the money, and we would essentially repeat the same argument we always have over giving away money.  The guy continues talking and Sanjeev makes another reply that stops him, a hurt look on his face.    

     As we put distance between him and us, I look back, and ask Sanjeev for better clarification about the event that just happened.  The guy was speaking Tamil (a language Sanjeev knows very little of), and he explained that he works as a cleaner but was left behind in Belgaum after his trucker friend and him had a fight.  He traveled the 508 kilometers (315 miles) from there to Bangalore on foot.  Sanjeev however, doubts his story and tells me that he’d be probably be visiting a liquor shop with any money we gave him.  I drop the issue for the moment and wait as Sanjeev stops and asks two more bike repair shops if they do puncture work.  Both are a negative and tell us in rambling Kannada and pointing arms to continue further down the road where another place is set up.  We walk for another five minutes and I joke when I see that we’ve reached our courier office.  We are in luck because a few shops down there is a small workshop that clearly does puncture work if the stacked up and hanging used tires outside its entrance are anything to go by.  It’s miraculously open and we walk our bike under the awning.  Sanjeev asks an old muslim guy sitting inside if they can fix our tire.  He nods and disappears somewhere when I look back and see that the Tamil guy has stopped someone else.  We leave the bike and walk back to the courier to finally relieve me of gift bag I’ve been hauling around all over the place.  The Tamilian is close to the store and before we turn to go inside, Sanjeev stops and tells me he is reconsidering helping the guy.  I am not sure what has changed his mind and I watch him walk over and converse with him on the side of the road.  After a few minutes of impatient waiting, I join them, and observe their conversation in broken Tamil and some random English sentences.  Sanjeev finally breaks his conversation and turns to tell me that the guy wants to get home to his village outside of Chennai in Tamil Nadu.  We agree that we will first send out our gifts, and that he will take him on the bike to the interstate bus station back in Electronic City.  I will take an auto home.  He tells the guy to sit and wait outside the courier office while we finally get those packages out. 

     Inside the stuffy office, we wait for the workers to finish their lunches.  I pace a little and glance out of the glass doors at the Tamil guy sitting on a concrete block.  He looks so worn, desperate even.  While Sanjeev busies himself with filling out the addresses of the packages, I see an elderly woman wrapped in a faded sari approach the window.  See knocks on it once to get my attention and asks me for money by bringing her hand to her mouth in an eating gesture.  The only kind of beggars I never ignore are the elderly, most of whom have been abandoned or widowed, and have most likely had an unimaginably hard life.  I walk over to the gap in the glass that serves as the exit and hand her a 100 rupee note.  She thanks me silently by touching the money to her heart and walks off.  When I rejoin Sanjeev, he tells me he thinks we got a flat tire so that we could help the Tamil guy.  I think about the events that led up to this point.  The fact that we didn’t go out to get the gift task done the last two days because of time and the rain, that we couldn’t use the car today because Akilesh is home, that we left when we did, drove over that road, and got a flat where we did.  I agree with him, we both believe in fate leading you places and sending you signs.  We stand around sweating for another ten to fifteen minutes, waiting for the cashier to finally finish charging us entirely too much for our package to be sent out and reach Delhi by the 20th.

     Back out on the street, Sanjeev tells the guy to continue waiting as we go back to check on the progress of the bike.  A young kid no more than twelve who sports the look of a hard working mechanic tells us that our tire tube needs to be changed, and we watch as he removes the tire off the back of the bike and begins dismantling it.  The kid speaks in Hindi too accented for me to understand more than a couple of words, and I watch them discuss which replacement tube to use.  Next to us, metal shop workers loudly hammer their current project and solder joints without protective glasses.  Trucks roll by with deafening horns blaring, and after idle standing for a few minutes Sanjeev asks me to walk back and check to see if the guy is still waiting.  I do, and motion for him to follow me when I see him.  He catches up to me and asks me in halfway decent English where I am from, I tell him America but pronounce it in an Indianized way he can understand – Amareeka.  We walk to the entrance and I strain to hear him speak to me over the sounds of the traffic and horns on the street.  He asks me for an American coin, and I tell him I don’t know if I have one, but search in the coin pouch of my wallet for the change I left in there from my last trip home for the expressed purpose of not disappointing another person who asks for a small token from my country.  I dig out a quarter, a dime, and a penny carefully placing each one in his palm and explaining to him what they are called and worth.  He thanks me and I say that I hope it brings him good luck.  He tells me, somewhat like a child, that he has come across a one-dollar bill and has kept it.  I ask him if he is native to Tamil Nadu and he tells me he is but that his family is very poor.  He says it took him seven days to walk to Bangalore.  When I comment that it was sad that no one helped him he replies that it was difficult because most people here don’t speak Tamil.  He again begins to look like he might cry and I tell him not to worry, that we will help him get home.

     The mechanic kid finishes his job and Sanjeev again joins us.  Having thought his trip over, the Tamil guy asks us if we can help him to the train station instead.  He holds out his right palm and draws with his opposite finger an imaginary map for us to describe how close his mother’s home is to the train station in Chennai.  We agree to get him a train ticket instead and start walking down the road to the bus stop just within sight.  Sanjeev parks the bike and asks him go sit on the bench on the other side of the street.  While Sanjeev looks up the varying trains and their times to Chennai on his phone, I go inside a little snacks shop and buy a bottle of water and a veg puff for the Tamil.  I walk across the side road and give it to him, and he feels compelled to show me his education credentials paper that he keeps folded in his front shirt pocket.  I notice that the well-to-do people waiting for the bus are staring at me, and I open the heavily creased paper, attempting to separate the Tamil script from any printed English.  I see that his name is Satheesh and I say it out loud to him.  He smiles approvingly that I have pronounced it right and I tell him my name.  He speaks it several times, with heavy emphasis on the R.  I hand the paper back to him and tell him to wait again while I check on Sanjeev’s train progress.  There are no more trains he can catch tonight but we agree that it is best if he gets the ticket himself for the 6:30 am train tomorrow.  We speak with him at the bus stop, waiting people curious and eavesdropping on our words.  We give him five hundred rupees ($10) for the train ticket and food, and 20 rupees for the bus fair to the train station.  He thanks us and holds out a small packet of locally harvested raisins for me to take.  I argue with him to keep it for himself but he tells me it is for the food and water I gave him.  I hesitantly take it and while we walk away, he boards the bus. 

      Before we drive away, a rather large guy who had been eavesdropping on the situation tells us in Kannada that we were fools to give Satheesh that money, because he is probably a drunkard.  It is true of course that Satheesh could be lying to us.  It is difficult to separate the truthful people from the deceitful ones.  Whether he takes that train to Chennai tomorrow morning and arrives at his mother’s home, and finally feeds himself, or uses it to drown his sorrows with cheap liquor, we cannot know.  I’d like to believe that he was honest; the despair on his face was genuine.  We both agreed that we did our part, whatever the outcome.  Driving home the last couple miles, I notice that the sky has suddenly turned dark again.  Five minutes later, back in the comfort of our apartment and changing out of my ethnic wear, I watch the sky open up and pour outside my bedroom window.  We both admit that the weather managed to be nice just as long as we needed it to.  

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