undercurrents of a soul
published: (updated: )
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
I watched the old man cross the road to the footsteps of the bridge. The traffic was coming to a standstill. You could distinguish between the familiars of this city by how carelessly they started walking even before the green walking signal had come on. That's how I came to notice him the first time.
The bridge was a curved one. Made of grills decorated in a Victorian style, it looked pretty. The steps were barely enough for four people to pass. It always looked more crowded this way. Somehow, this made it more beautiful. Unlike bridges in pictures that looked spectacular with humans and cars taking a cancerous look. Not this bridge. It had white lights fashioned like lanterns of the old days. One could see the influence on it. It gave the whole thing a moorish quality.
The old man climbed up one step at a time. By the time I had crossed the road, he was already halfway across the bridge. A homeless bum sat huddled in his blankets. His meek hands covered in gloves made of rags. One could make out the mist in his breath. The cold of the city was unforgiving.
I saw the old man stop before the homeless bum. I saw him draw out food from the bags in his hand. He handed it to the bum. The bum smiled. His teeth were blackened but there was honesty in his smile. By the time I reached them, the old man had already started walking away. I caught up to him in a few strides.
"Hello, excuse me..."
"Ah, yes? How do you do?"
"I'm good, thanks. And you?"
"Say, why did you give that man your food?"
"Oh you mean Harry? Well I've known Harry for a few years. He's a good man. Life has not been too kind on him."
"Why doesn't he work then? You know... to earn and eat?"
The old man stopped and looked at me. He then shook his head a little. But then he smiled, and it was sad. That was how we became friends. I met him often in that city. We walked amidst the fog together and talked of nothing. He always used to give food to the homeless and the needy. Everyone called him the 'old man'. It was a term of endearment and affection.
The pouring of rain was not a pleasant thing. It was cold and hard. It made me sick. I walked with my bag over my head. I forgot my umbrella at home. I didn't want to curse myself.
I walked to the bridge. It's steps and curves were glistening with little torrents of water flowing down. I saw the homeless bum holding a plastic sheet over his head. I walked over to him.
"Hey Harry. Bad weather huh?"
"Yah, yah. What'cha gonna do."
"Say, have you seen the old man? I haven't met him."
The rain had stopped. But the water still flowed from Harry's eyes.
"He's dead man. He's dead. Som'one knifed him real bad. Read bad. Kind soul. Too bad man. Too bad. Life fucks up."
I walked away. Maybe I was crying too. If I was I didn't know. I was numb. The cold seeped through the bone straight into the heart.
I came to know later about what happened to the old man. Someone had stuck a knife in him in a dark alley. It used to be his route to home. Someone had stuck a knife in the warmest man in this miserably cold city. And then left him there alone and dead.
The police did not know who had killed him. Or they did not care. It was hard to tell. The bags they found beside his body had been torn open. Food spilled all over the road. Some of it was half-eaten.
The moon shined softly behind the slow moving clouds. It was gray all over. The fog rolling in turned everything in to a cemetery.
The homeless were all gathered together for warmth as they stood waiting for food. If one did not think too much of their appearance, they were civilised. They stood and waited in a queue. Disciplined. They helped each other by holding plates. Getting spoons and extra helpings. There was warmth there amidst them.
Across the corner one of the homeless stood alone. The others walked past in their dirty rags and threw him dirtier looks. No one wanted to stay near him.
He walked across to the queue for getting food. Everyone stepped off the line.
"Yah.. yah... feed him. Feed da'motherfuckar. Let'im choke on it. 'ere. Hav'dis"
He threw at him his half-eaten bread. The others walked away in disgust. I heard one of the nameless say, "ah.. him. Him is'da evil". They all walked away. Hungry. Starved. Away from food. In to the dark, cold night. Their half eaten food kept carefully at the corners.
I walked back home.
The city endured. People did not care what happened inside the dark belly of the city. They stuck to the lights and to their drinks. In the darker alleyways something stirred. Shapeless. Formless. Something obscure. Yet clearly visible. The city had a soul.