I turned on the road leading towards my society and noticed the man immediately.
He was trudging along the side of the road with a heavy bag in each hand. There was no one else on this long stretch. I had not met a single-vehicle on my way, and this was the first person I had seen on the deserted lanes that day, so I studied him with a passing interest.
He was walking further up on the sidewalk and clearly was struggling. The way his back was bent and the manner in which he leaned towards the right, presumably due to heavier weight, made it evident that going was tough for him. His bent legs seemed to buckle under the heat. It certainly was hot. The monitor of my car showed the reading as 41℃ but I knew that it would feel a whole lot more to anyone unfortunate enough to be out on the road in the dry heat of Ahmedabad, that too when the sun shone directly overhead!
Instinctively, I notched up the A.C. of the car.
On both sides, fields were brown and the land was cracked. A lone scarecrow stood listlessly in the distance. There were no birds to ward off. The paved tarmac shimmered in the distance.
It was only the first week of May and already the dreaded winds of Loo were blowing freely on the lonely pathways and unsown stretches of land.
As my car approached him, he turned around, perhaps due to the noise of the diesel engine, and I got a glimpse of a weathered-face and a head filled with shiny-white hair.
It was at this moment that he did the unthinkable: gradually, like in slow-motion and perhaps somewhat half-heartedly, his left hand came up and I saw, as if in a dream, his thumb sticking up in the universal gesture to ask for a lift.
I froze; even in normal times I am loath to respond to this signal, and the times were very difficult indeed.
What is that actually? A question asked when none is expected, a request submitted when it is not welcome. It forms a link, however short-lived, between two unknown persons. A bridge spanning from one human to another inside the vast sea of humanity. And it needs to be answered too. Either in affirmative leading to tiresome small-talk or in negative leading to crumpling of face and crushing of feelings.
No; I don’t like it one bit.
And so I gaped at him as my car rushed passed him, and felt his eyes bore through me with their piercing query. But those eyes had shades of other emotions too-resignation, fear, and guilt.
Something in his demeanor penetrated my conscience, and I was deeply aware of the fact that if anyone ever was in the need of my help then it was this old gentleman.
I braked suddenly and the car came to a screeching halt a few paces ahead of him. I could see him in the rear-view mirror. He was as surprised by my abrupt halt as I was.
‘What am I doing? This is not the time to give an unknown person a lift in my car. What about social-distancing, and what about the police?’ I thought.
I regretted the decision to stop but having done so it would have been awkward to suddenly fly-off. I waited for him to approach.
He was in a similar dilemma it seemed. For he stood for a few moments gazing towards my car as if expecting me to come out and shout at him. It was quite possible, I reckoned. Lockdown had transformed everything.
Eventually, the man shuffled towards me, and knocked on the glass of the passenger seat next to me,
” It’s ok saheb…it was a mistake, a moment of weakness. I am sorry, please go ahead towards your destination.”
My heart was thumping. How did a simple act of offering a ride-along become so complicated? It seemed I was involved in any illegal activity.
I observed him closely. His wrinkled face was suffused with perspiration. He was long, thin, and lanky with a thin mustache adorning his hardened face. Clad in an old white shirt, the ends of which were flapping in the hot wind, and brown trousers, he stood before me; panting; due to the effort of carrying the weight and perhaps due to the thirst. The large plastic bags that he was carrying were filled with melons, bananas, cabbage, tomatoes, onions, and many other such fruits and vegetables. If the age had to be guessed it would be around seventy.
The veins of his sweaty hands were propped up and seemed like a mighty river was traversing the plains of his forearms in a torrent of green water. Not only I could see the distributaries and rivulets, emerging from the bifurcation at the elbow, but I could name each branch individually.
“No, it’s alright…please come inside, I will drop you off to your place. It’s scorching outside, and I fear that you will pass out with the effort of carrying the weight in the heat,”
” But what about the police, saheb? It’s not allowed for more than one person to sit inside any vehicle,”
” There is no policeman in this area. We are in the outskirts of the city and strictness here is not similar to what it is inside the city,”
He stood there and gazed at me with his steely eyes.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting the virus from me?”
I flinched. Deep inside, I was petrified, but it seemed too inhuman and uncultured, if you will, to leave that elderly man alone on the road.
” Do you have a fever or any other symptoms?”
” No, but I have heard that even people without any signs could carry it too,”
“Bah! If we start thinking about it in every action of our lives than life would become hell. Come on, hop in,” I was feeling unusually careless and adventurous. Five weeks of over-saturation of hearing and reading nothing but corona-related news had worn my patience and defense down.
I was cagey, irritated, and bursting with a revolt against the crazy world that I was living in. This simple act of giving a lift to a person seemed to have become an act of madness, stupidity, anti-authority, and a challenge to the system.
It was just the thing I wanted to do. Besides, what were the odds of myself being apprehended? Miniscule.
Also, to be truthful, it did seem to my trained mind that he needed help.
He started to open the door and then suddenly stopped,
” Would you mind if I sat on the back-seat? It would be better, I think, considering the circumstances,”
My alpha- male ego felt a kick. I would be like his chauffeur!
I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. There were merits in his suggestion. Yes, it was the prudent thing to do.
“Thank you very much,” he said while settling in the seat,” you are very generous, and a good man.”
I blushed, “It’s nothing, it’s the least that one can do for another human being,”
” Not everyone thinks like you saheb, in fact, this virus has brought out the worst in humans. I have never seen people so suspicious and paranoid about others in my life, and believe me I have seen a lot,”
“You are quite right,” I said while preparing to accelerate the car, ” where should I drop you off?”
” Mehfil society, Sarkhej.”
My heart gave a big thump, and inadvertently I released the clutch too soon. The car gave a big lurch and came to a standstill.
“Sorry..” I was not able to breathe properly. There was a tightness in my chest. Sarkhej! Of all the places why did he have to live there? The bonhomie and benevolence that I was feeling a few moments ago had vaporized, leaving behind gnawing anxiety.
This see-sawing of emotions was the characteristic of lockdown. One moment I would be filled with bravado and recklessness, and in another second I would be in throes of uncertainty and deep nervousness. Life was coming apart at seams, and my sanity was getting unhinged.
The tumult of my heart must have been reflected on my face, that was visible to my co-passenger in the rear-view mirror, because he exclaimed hurriedly,
” Don’t worry my name is not Imran or Abdul or any such name; I am Bhanwar singh,”
I was instantly ashamed of myself, then relieved, and then deeply ashamed of my relief.
“No..No, it’s not that, I thought that Sarkhej was under curfew,” I lied, but it was important for me to impress upon him that I was not that kind of a person, and truly I was not. But the world had gone topsy-turvy. I did not know what to believe and who to believe anymore.
“Hmmm…” a knowing smile played upon his face,” it’s not your fault. This virus is nothing against the might of the virus of hatred that is seated in the depths of everyone’s mind. That’s why I did not ask your name. It instantly divides us. The pandemic has only exposed the rift that was already present. My heart aches when people, mostly youngsters who have not seen the world and have not faced the realities, spew venom against a community so casually and with impunity. I have a lot of Muslim friends, in fact, in this troubled time it’s only because of my dear friend Wasim that I have been able to sustain myself,”
I felt a wave of compassion and gratitude towards this wise old man. He certainly seemed to have his bearings, and it was a big thing in the ugly world of lockdown.
” Quite true Bhanwar Ji, though I must tell you that I too am one of you…I mean, we all are one.. but..but…”
“It’s ok saheb. I understand, don’t feel bad for yourself. You are young but I can see that you are a man of depth who is trying to remain true to his principles even in the face of this storm. The fact that you halted for me, and did not kick me out even when I told you my destination, tells me a lot about your character.”
A warm feeling of satisfaction and gratification descended upon me like a soft cloud. By now we were cruising along at a comfortable speed. I thought how great it was that I decided to offer this gentleman a lift. If I would have rushed past I would have deprived myself an opportunity to meet a wise man, and more so, an opportunity to know that there were others in the society, at different levels and different strata that have not been swept away by the tide of phobia and hatred raging in the country.
“Here, have a go,” I offered the bottle of water that was been lying near me.
He stated at it hesitantly, unsure whether to take it or not.
“Don’t worry, keep it with you,”
He gulped the cool water and let out a sigh of ecstasy, “Heavenly, I was dying to have a sip of cool water,”
“Why are you out in this damned heat anyway?”
” I had to take this stuff. From tomorrow perhaps Sarkhej is going to be under curfew, even right now there is a lot of security there. This is from Wasim’s field. He is distributing it locally as transport is blocked and his crop will decay. Of course, for me it’s free. I got a message from him yesterday night, so I walked early in the morning to his field nearby. But it got afternoon by the time everything was sorted out,”
“You mean you walked from Sarkhej! It’s quite a distance. But why? Don’t you have a vehicle or anyone else to help you out? And why didn’t you buy all this near you, I am sure there are few vendors selling fruits and vegetables there,”
He remained silent for a few moments and kept staring out of the window. I felt that I had trespassed an unsaid boundary. It was none of my business.
” I am sorry, I did not mean to be over-inquisitive. It's Just that watching you walk alone in this dreadful temperature made me curious,”
“No..No saheb, it’s not that. I was too overwhelmed with emotions for a moment there,”
“Why? What has happened to you?” I was very much intrigued now.
” I have been left all alone in this difficult time without money and no means to fend for myself, and the people who I thought as my own have turned against me,”
” How come? Where is your family?”
Bhanwar Singh seemingly hesitated before speaking softly,” They all are at Civil hospital. All of them-my wife, son, and daughter-in-law.”
“Civil? Why?” I was getting anxious again. Who was this man? What was he hiding? Something did not feel right.
” They all tested positive for Corona and were taken to the Civil hospital by the authorities. In fact, my wife is fighting for her life right now. And I was barred from entering my society after that. All my money, my scooter, and important papers are lying at our residence but I am unable to access them,”
I nearly got a heart attack while listening to him. In my panic, I missed a speed-breaker, and the car went flying over it with a severe thud, “Ouch!” cried Bhanwar Singh from the rear seat as his head struck the roof.
“Sorry..” I was unable to speak anything else.
‘There is direct contact of positive patients with you in your car!’ my conscience whispered to me. ‘What have you done!’
Nobody spoke for some time. The tension was palpable in the car. He was looking at me, perhaps, to gauge my reaction, and I was hyperventilating as if there was a sinister criminal in my car.
My mind was blocked. I could not decide on the next action.’ Should I ask him to get out of the car?‘ I threw this question at my alter-ego and received the confused response, as always- ‘Perhaps yes, but won’t that look awful? But you should not take the risk. But what does it matter now, already you have been in his contact for some time now and shortly you will reach his society…Just don’t tell your wife about it,”
I shuddered to imagine what would happen if Ritika came to know about this. She would fly off the handle totally.
“Don’t be afraid saheb, I did not come into their contact for a long time before they were taken to the hospital,” said Bhanwar eventually.
“Hugh! What… How?”
” I had been to Dungarpur, our native, for about a month before the lockdown to tend to our ancestral house, and also to maintain and cut the mango crop that was getting ready in the small piece of land that we have there. I rushed to Ahmedabad in the evening when the lockdown was suddenly announced that evening. What a journey that was! The borders were sealed and I hid in a cargo truck after bribing the driver,”
I listened to him riveted.
” But as I reached my colony in the dead of the night, it’s in Manipur gaam, I got the news that an hour ago my wife, son and his wife had been taken away by the authorities to the civil. My son works as a porter at the airport, and his sample had been taken as a routine check a couple of days before that fateful night. When it turned out to be positive, immediately the civic bodies descended upon our home and took all of them without any warning. No time was given to them to prepare for the near future. Such was the hysteria in our society that all other members were baying for their blood as if they had done a crime. Our neighbors, friends, and companions of years had suddenly turned our enemies. They saw my family as a threat-grave and immediate threat,” there was a catch in his voice as he recalled the events.
“I am very sorry to hear that. You must have been very disturbed by the way things turned out,”
“I was devastated. But more than the disease I was hurt by the manner in which the committee members and my landlord behaved. I was barely absorbing the news of deportation of my family, standing there at the entrance gate in the middle of the night, when I got to know that we have been evicted from our house by the landlord and that our house was sealed and nobody was allowed to go inside- not even I! They did not believe me that I had not come to my family’s contact for the last few weeks. They did not want anything to do with me. Just wished me to disappear away from their eyes-that was all,”
“But that is illegal and very unfair! Why didn’t you go to the police or higher authorities?” I bristled with anger.
” We are poor and small people saheb, who would listen to me? Besides I was very afraid and confused. I ran to civil after that but was not allowed to meet my family. Doctors are living gods, and are doing a wonderful service at this time, but the situation at the hospital is very grave and disorderly. Though, they tested me too after I informed them of my relation to the recently brought family. That test came out negative later on. I would not have endangered your life by sitting in your car otherwise, trust me.”
I was much relieved to hear that and felt deep sympathy for him,” How is your family doing now, and where have you been living since then?”
“My son and daughter-in-law are fine. They are young and will come out of it, but my wife is serious. My son calls me on my mobile once a day from the hospital. I have no balance in my mobile, and very little money in my pocket to recharge it. I have not gone to the hospital after that night. What is the point? Wasim had a spare one-room apartment at Sarkhej, and he offered that to me to live-in till everything becomes all right,”
” Oh..That was kind and very thoughtful of him,”
“Yes. Isn’t it ironic that when the need arose, the people of my own neighborhood deserted me; the majority are from my own caste only and belong to Dungarpur and other regions of Rajasthan, and a Gujarati Muslim stepped up to lend me a helping hand. Not only that, but other residents of Mehfil society have also accepted me despite knowing the history. Though they are maintaining a distance but daily I find a thali of food in front of the door and a jug full of water. The real religion is humanity saheb. The only problem is that it’s very rare to be found, and only appears in the most unexpected of the places,” said Bhanwar Singh while wiping a tear.
My heart was filled with a glow of warmth spreading all over my body. I felt a strong connection with this man who had been a complete stranger to me ten minutes ago and now seemed like a member of my family. An old and wise elderly whose proximity always benefits one, either by his benedictions or by the wise counsel. I found that the cobwebs in my head were getting cleared- It is so simple! Just be humane and have no bias against anyone.
‘How strange this world is! One minute you are about to pass a man on the road, and in another, you have immersed neck-deep in his story.’ I thought
“Bhanwar Singh Ji, though you are elder to me and much wiser, still I want to tell you that do not worry, everything will be all right- as before, and you have a friend in me,”
” Thank you…I know saheb. I have seen a lot of hardship in my life and know that like every difficulty this time shall pass too, I just wish to remain healthy to be able to see my wife and children return to me,”
I laughed softly,” Don’t worry you are strong as a horse. Nothing will happen to you, and god forbid if it does then come to me. I will get you treated at my hospital free of cost,”
There was a sound of deep breath being sucked from the rear seat,
‘ Are you a doctor?”
“Yes,” I smiled in anticipation of his kind words, “I am Dr. Vivek Sharma and was returning from the hospital only when I picked you up. The hospital was quite nearby. It’s in Ghuma, near the bus stand. I am a senior orthopedic surgeon…”
“Stop the car right now!”
I was startled, and the car nearly ran into a cow that was standing on one side of the road, chewing it’s cud meditatively.
With some effort, I brought the car under control and halted it. As I turned toward the back I found him completely transformed. The face was flush red with anger and the veins of his neck were dancing menacingly. There was murder in his blood-shot eyes.
“Are you out of your mind! You are a doctor and you gave me a lift in your car..are you insane? Or are you deliberately trying to spread the virus?”
“It’s people like you who are spreading it all over the country..look what happened in Bhilwara. You should be put behind bars. You are going to the hospital daily and coming in contact with people carrying it, yet you decided and dared to make sit in your car! Ram..Ram…What will happen now?”
“But…listen to me...Why are you..”
” I have been taking so much care of myself. If they would not have barred me from entering my house, I myself would not have entered it! And why do you think I am not visiting the civil hospital? To protect me! And here you come along and take me with you in this filthy car of yours…”
With these acidic words, he opened the door with so much violence that I feared that it would come off.
I saw him get out and literally jump a few meters away from the car, then he turned, spat at the ground while cursing me, and then whirled around and stomped off, muttering under the breath, with a determination, zeal, and speed that I have never seen in a man of that age walking with weights in his hands……