The Vagabond

I walked a fair distance today, raking up leaves strewn all over yesteryears. The silent Sun bore my witness as I crossed the railway tracks one more time to search for the lanky vagabond who I had last met there nearly two decades ago. I knew I will still find him there because there was no other place he could go. The little alley where the railway platform ended and the walls of a chemical factory began, had a dead end and the dark corner of this dead end was what he called home. This lane had no name, no address and perhaps did not even exist on the municipal corporation’s maps. It was partially hidden from direct view outside and there were no doors or houses that opened to it. It was as if this lane did not exist in the city or perhaps this planet.

The vagabond had no name, no religion, no caste, creed or a family. I found him living there when I took a wrong turn and ended up in that alley. We spoke no words then. He simply looked up from where he was sitting and for no apparent reason, smiled at me. I was taken aback at his gesture and inadvertently smiled back. He seemed happy to be in that little corner sitting on top of a plastic crate, oblivious to the world outside and content at being shut out. The rising stench from the factory and piling heap of trash did not bring a grimace to his face. It did not deter him or faze the sparkle in his eyes. For some strange reason, I envied him and his luxury of silence. He had no obligations of making acquaintances, befriending leeches or deploying a fake, social smile in company. There was something sane and calming about him that was almost scary. He sat with no authority in that dump and yet the world seemed to be his playground. He asserted himself as if he’d been there, done it all and then found everything meaningless and moved on to a higher plateau. It was saintly and yet very worldly at the same time. I ended up sitting there, by his side and helped myself to his hash.

In the days ahead, I met him regularly. I would often go and see him during lazy afternoons and solitary evenings and we would sit in silence, staring at the wall thinking about a possible parallel universe that existed beyond the confines of that bricked lane where light diffused and blurred and still created boundaries. We rarely spoke to each other and yet there was some unknown bond that held us together. On the rare occasions that he spoke, he would surprise me by quoting Marx, Keats, Tagore, Ghalib and Premchand. He could talk about the global trends and technology and art and then be lewd and crass about cinema he had last watched in the same breath. He did odd jobs for people every now and then to earn his daily meal and proudly claimed he never begged, borrowed or stole. I deduced that he was educated and perhaps had a family once but he never spoke about it. Also, he never asked me where I came from, where I lived or what I did. We, every now and then, shared a smoke, did weed or just drank the cheap local toddy to raise our spirits and indulge in some banter.

Time passed, I moved and travelled and soon lost touch with everything that held me close to both the city and its dwellers. Years later, I found myself at the same cross roads again. The city had changed over the years and so had its people. The relationships turned more practical and friendships feeble. I entered the lane hoping to see a similar wear and tear on my homeless friend. He was there alright, looking stoned just as ever with the same unkempt hair and stubble, but older. He didn’t recognize me, perhaps he didn’t care anymore. I was gone too long and perhaps he slotted me in the same universe now that he had given up years ago.  The smile was no longer there and even when I smiled, he did not return it. The air in that alley had changed. The stench was no longer there – the chemical factory had given way to a furniture house. I could see empty cans of paint thinners, wood polish and varnish scattered all around. I guess my friend was happy at this change as I found him licking the last drops of paint thinner from a can. I was actually surprised to see him still alive but not necessarily relieved for some strange reason.

Perhaps, I was hoping he would be dead by now and with him a certain part of my life would get a closure. Maybe that was the reason I was here – to seek a closure on those days that I had conveniently stashed in some corner of my past that I didn’t visit anymore. I waited a little before I went close and touched his shoulder. He looked up and his gaze ran straight through me as if I was invisible and he could see the sky above. I felt a chill run down my spine. For him, I was not the person that people who knew me thought I was. My whole persona was split open and was spread bare before this street dweller who, I knew wasn’t even judging me. He looked at me again, squinted his eyes and guffawed and then pointed to the wall ahead indicating that I belonged here and not to the world outside. In that one gesture, I knew that he perhaps knew all along, that I would return. Maybe, he had come here years ago just like I did, dusted himself and settled here.

In that moment, I realized that I was the vagabond here, the nomad who was on the move for twenty long years and only now had returned to where I belonged – in that alley, that universe of silent conversations. He had lived there all the while I was gone silently waiting for me to find my course and meet him again. I think it would have been easier if he had been dead. I would have then just sat in silence for a while, paid my respects and shut myself out of his land forever.   As I sat with him, I realized that none of us actually own the land beneath our feet, we just own the share of sky above our heads – an infinite space to live, fly and soar. He never moved an inch away from that alley all his life and yet he travelled each day to new pastures, countries, worlds, perhaps beyond planets and solar systems and galaxies to an infinity that none of us ever understood. The vagabond who never moved was an explorer by his own virtue…and I, was an accomplice now…My heart was the dead end alley…

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