STRANGER IN THE NIGHT

Before I see her, I hear her. No, it is only her stick. Her, I never hear at all.

When her battered wooden cane clacks against the old wooden seats, we who are sitting at the front of the first compartment of one of the last locals to Borivali, look up. In the aisle stands an elderly lady, left hand clutching the hook of her stick, right hand cupped in supplication, her entire frame swaying with the motion of the train.

Thinning grey hair, straggly and uncombed, plastered against her skull into a tiny bun at the back. A fading tattoo at the centre of her sun-bronzed forehead; a caste-mark, perhaps. Her eyes are shut. Perhaps she cannot open them. Perhaps she chooses not to. I don’t know.

She wears a dark green blouse that yawns around her elbows. A green and red sari, not unclean. Bangles on her wrist, golden, perhaps gold. Not someone who was always poor. From wizened head to unshod feet, she is four feet something and sparsely built, just like my grandmum.

We are terrified she will fall over.

The middle-aged man with hennaed hair who has just boarded at Khar, already proffers a coin. My faintly moustachioed young neighbour, who has spent the last fifteen minutes telephonically advising his associate about relationships, compromising and how not to say ‘fuck’ in front of one’s mother, tucks his phone between shoulder and ear, digs out his wallet and extricates a ten-rupee note. And I, who think myself inured to beggars of all description – wheedling eunuchs, anaemic urchins and deadpan single mothers – fish in my change pocket and draw out all its coins.

She accepts our coins without remark and drops them into a pocket sewn inside her blouse. The note she raises to her forehead, murmurs a silent thanks, and tucks into the waist of her sari.

She shambles on to the next set of seats. I find my head turning to watch her. She lightly grazes the heads or shoulders of the seated men to steady herself; maybe also to garner sympathy. I stand and lean against the back of my seat for a better view. Few are those who don’t bring out their wallets.

As Santacruz approaches, the train decelerates. She turns around, steadies herself for a moment and inches towards the door. She is too short to grasp the hand-grips overhead. The train stops with a jerk. She teeters, but does not fall.

She lowers herself onto the platform. On an impulse, so do I.

The train thunders out of the station. She uses her cane as a pathfinder, casting about in front of herself as she walks, nay, totters along one side of the platform. I stroll unobtrusively along the other, looking at her sideways. She shuffles up to a foodstall. Identifies it with her hand. Shuffles onward. Bangs her stick against a bench. Reaches the next stall. Hand flails for the counter. This too is open. She chooses to totter on, not exhibiting the measured confidence of the blind.

I follow, hopefully inconspicuous. Should I walk alongside her, I will attract more than a few stares, even at this late hour. I’m already embarrassed by what I now realise is my stalking, but am unable to stop.

She reaches a third foodstall. Taps the glass. Gestures to the attendant to pack something. A few samosas and vadas. She produces notes out her sari.

The attendant catches me watching. Locks eyes for a moment. Then shrugs, and returns to wiping the counter.

Ten minutes have elapsed. A train has drawn in, paused, and departed. I realise that I don’t need to be shifty. She is not at all aware of my presence.

Turning around, she backs up against the stall and slowly slides to the ground. Withered, veiny hands rip open the parcel and count its contents. Satisfied, she stuffs it into a cloth bag on her shoulder. One hand pushes down against the concrete. With the other, she bears down on her stick. After a few seconds of crouched uncertainty, she straightens up. Circles around a shut newspaper stall. And slowly squats on her haunches.

She is facing the stall, instead of resting against it. I am puzzled. Until I observe a small stream of something emerge from between her feet, darkening the platform.

As another train draws in, she struggles up, and advances to the edge of the platform. A man walking by warns her to go no further. She stops, and lets her cane clatter against the doorframes of the slowing train. Thut…..thut….thut…thut..thut. When it halts, willing hands pull her in. I board it too.

What will claim her first – death, hunger or a terrible accident? Will she welcome death, or is she terrified of it? Where does she find the courage to fend for herself, and for how long has she been on her own? Does anyone ever speak to her? What does her voice sound like? Where was she born? What is her story?

She goes on to Jogeshwari, a few more rupees and God-knows-what. I alight at Andheri, for a thirty-rupee rickshaw ride, dinner, and bed.

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