Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Hobbled Hobo

Wasn’t long into the afternoon when we first saw him… We were a little lost and needed to stop and ask for directions, but that hot summer afternoon, on that usually busy bridge across the Yamuna that connects what Delhiites fondly call ITO to the sprawling industrial pastures of Western UP, there wasn’t a soul to be seen… as we trundled along slowly, we saw him bundled in rags by the pavement… We stopped to ask, he got up… a ghastly sight with his long matted hair gathered in greasy clumps, his sunken cheeks stretched over high cheek bones and at his chin grew a scraggly beard… his filthy and tattered clothes seemed to have grown brittle with dirt and age and his skin was dry and scaly… There are many such homeless tramps on our streets so I didn’t think twice about rolling down the window and popping the question when the stench hit us and we saw flies buzzing around what must have once been his left shin… His left leg below the knee had swollen like the stomach of a dead cow and near the shin was a gaping hole… “Gosh, he’s got maggots in there!” my friend Eravee exclaimed… “and isn’t that a bone sticking out from that wound?” I looked and realised that it was so. The man seemed to feel no pain though. He casually started peeling dead skin from his foot and then looked at me as if to ask why I had disrupted his slumber… So I stopped staring and asked him the way to our destination. He mumbled and pointed to his left… we drove off….

“This is the capital… how could a man with a shattered rotting leg be lying around on a busy flyover without anyone stopping and doing anything about it! It’s shocking!!” I exclaimed. “What’ll anyone do,” asked Eravee … “What did we do? Aren’t we walking away too, just like everybody else… We aren’t doctors; we can’t take him home and the condition he is in, can’t even take him to a hospital… We don’t even know if we’ll be able to pick him up without worsening his condition. And then who cares for him, pays for the treatment etc? He obviously has no one to do this for him… really, who cares? Would you… could you, or I take on this responsibility?”

“But isn’t there anything one could do? How could we allow something like this to happen in front of our very eyes and not react? I mean, this is not someone being robbed or raped on gunpoint wherein concerns for our own safety stop us from stepping in and trying to help, right? I’m sure there is something we could do to reduce this man’s suffering… isn’t there,” I asked…. “I don’t know…. I’m sure there are some NGOs we could ask around for….,” Eravee wondered aloud. Hmm, NGOs… these days, isn’t there one for everything one could think of (and thank God and their funding organizations for that)? So, we called a friend of ours who we knew would’ve been busy spilling coffee over her keyboard at that hour and asked her if she could find out about an agency that was committed to providing medical aid to the homeless. And that resourceful little Samaritan called us back with a handful of options. Eravee called on two of those numbers and sure enough, we got a response from a certain Mansoor who promised to reach the said spot and attend to the tramp… We were relieved. We felt that even as we drove off, we hadn’t ‘walked away’ from our responsibilities … aah, the moral high ground offers a great view… of oneself.

However, when I called that evening to check with Mansoor about our patient’s health, I found out that apparently they hadn’t been able to locate the man and had left without him. I was upset and grew skeptical of this Mansoor. I asked him why they couldn’t spend more time looking… He said he tried his best… Disappointed, I arranged for a meeting the next day with Mansoor at the venue so that he wouldn’t have an excuse this time… he agreed… and sounded rather somber…

Next day, I was late and reached the spot more than an hour behind schedule… I was afraid that Mansoor might leave, citing the delay as an excuse, so I called him to assure him and he assured me in turn, saying I’d find him there… We were supposed to meet at the mouth of the aforementioned bridge and that is where I found Mansoor and his friend Mr Tingle. We drove up a few metres and we found the man just as we’d left him… There was a dirty rag tied around the wound. I couldn’t go near him because of the pungent odour and grime around the man. But Mansoor gently put his arm around the man and started talking to him… he had my respect… I strained to hear the man but couldn’t understand a thing. Mansoor tried to explain…. “His name’s Babu Rao.. he’s from Andhra Pradesh. He came here looking for a job and can’t quite remember how he injured his leg… he seems to have lost his mind a bit,” he surmise. “Now what?”, I asked. “Well, it’s a terrible wound… he’ll need a surgeon. So we’ll have sent to a charitable hospital. But we’ll inform the cops first… the ambulance wouldn’t take him unless the cops are present. Don’t worry, it won’t take long… but we’ll have to be here till they arrive…” I nodded… Mr Tingle dialed 100 and informed the cops while Mansoor called CATS* on 1021099 (a friend of mine suggested we could also try dialing 1092). Within 15 minutes, both the ambulance and the cop car had arrived… but Babu Rao wouldn’t budge… Mansoor put an arm around him, “kya hua baba… kyun nahin jaoge…” Babu Rao mumbled… “he fears that he’ll be jailed… the homeless are terrified of the police”. With a compassionate patience, Mansoor explained that they were only here to help. Rao seemed to trust Mansoor and after a lot of cajoling, he agreed and was carried into the ambulance. “Don’t worry… he’ll live…” the ambulance driver called out as they drove off.

“We couldn’t sleep last night”, Mr Tingle said as saw the ambulance off… “We felt really bad about not being able to rescue him yesterday. There’s so much that needs to be done for the homeless but we just can’t seem to do enough. Two years ago, in Fatehpuri, the government had set up some temporary night shelters to protect the homeless from the biting cold of Delhi’s winter nights… Mansoor and I had gone to help and inspect the arrangements. Outside one of these tents, at about 9:00 p.m., we saw an old man haggling with the caretaker… “The caretaker’s not letting me in… please ask him to let me… it’s so cold outside”, the old man complained in desperation. We rebuked the caretaker and asked him to let the old man in. The caretaker apologised and showed us in… Inside, the shelter was bursting at the seams. Equipped to house 60 inmates, it was packed in with more than 250 people… it couldn’t have taken in ant without squashing it. It was so difficult… telling the old man that there just wasn’t any space left... Our words took the fight out of the old man… He nodded… he understood… The caretaker emerged with a couple of blankets and we wrapped them around the old man as he sat down outside the tent. We promised to look around and let him know if we found a place for him and left. After hours of searching and calling, we finally found a shelter which had some room. We rushed to Fatehpuri. In the December mist, we could see the old man where we’d left him, wrapped in blankets, sitting outside the tent, his right hand holding on to one of the tent’s ropes. As we got closer, we called out to him but he didn’t budge… So Mansoor patted him on the shoulder and then on his bare arm. Mansoor froze… the old man’s hand was cold and stiff… he was dead! We felt so hollow.. so helpless that day… and this feeling hounds us all the time…. because of our countless limitations, we can’t always provide help on time, and are haunted by the thought that would it be too little… too late. When Mansoor called last night to say that they hadn’t been able to look long enough to find this man, that old helplessness returned. We were feeling sick in the stomach as we waited, unsure if we’d be reaching this man in time… I’m so glad we did…” The enormity of their task was obvious… I asked him if there was anything we could do to help. Mr. Tingle smiled, “Just let people know that they don’t need us to help people like Babu Rao. Just call the cops and the ambulance (take note, folks… the numbers are up there for Delhi and each city will have its own) and insist that you’ll wait for them to show up. They’ll do the rest… Just remember the numbers, and please don’t hesitate to help… The homeless aren’t always junkies and losers but often people from decent families who’ve been pushed out of their homes in distant villages by catastrophes and feuds. They come to our cities seeking shelter and a livelihood … We might not have the means to offer them that but don’t they deserve at least our compassion? Remember, circumstances, whether ours, theirs or of those who we love, could change, have changed, in an instant… I always believe that if we keep doing our bit for those in need, providence too tries its best to let us keep ‘doing’, never ‘needing’…”



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