Twenty-Two Rupees

I dragged myself up the steep road that peels skyward beside the river Ganges, letting the passing haze of traffic avoid me as it rushed past with noise and fumes and chatter.

On the paths beside me and across the road, sat and sprawled out, men of ages undistinguishable in linear time, but in various stages of ageless forms of decay, were waiting, for what seemed like deaths invitation, but was probably more accurately food from the scattered ashrams that were housed behind large iron gates all along this road.

Most of these withering souls were motionless, staring blankly into nowhere, while a few conversed with each other, smoking chillums and beedies.

And on I kept walking.

Passed burning piles of rubbish, with plumes of toxic plastic filling the air and my lungs.

Trees, centuries old, in beautiful and harmonious postures and forms, with branches the many playgrounds for the countless devious monkeys

wooden, breaking, unkempt stalls and rest stops, selling anything from chai to shampoo to paan.

And then, suddenly

a man, his body and head covered in a long-ago green blanket now-stained brown, sat and huddled on the ground with his back against a shoulder high wall that blocks the roads view of the Ganga, my eyes catch his being.

It feels all at once that silence and sadness is him, that he has passed through this vision of life and entered a space and phase of despair unlike anything documented previously and this, now, is his work – to sit and stare and hold himself back from death.

His being breaks my heart.

I keep walking. About ten steps on, I stop and choke, as the incomprehensible suffering of this vision of long since departed hope stops me motionless for a moment – I turn back and hand him all the change in my pocket – a pittance of twenty-two rupees – as he momentarily looks up with a grimace and his decrepit hand receives the money with grace.

This encounter breaks my understanding of challenge, of fairness, of humanity, of love – but all I can do is keep walking, up the steep road, towards a sanctuary, towards a view of the mountains, towards the bed my head rose from this morning, towards a place to sit and write these very words.

Rishikesh, India // 18”01”17

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