The Man of Haridwar Station
The details take on mythic proportions. A tiny girl, aided by her mother who holds her hands from behind, squeaks little steps on shoes designed to make noise so that neither shoes nor child ever get lost. A group of young men huddle together like lovers on a mat made from the refuse of a goods packaging factory. They hug each other with one arm and hold their cellphones with the other, all of them, synchronized like chorus girls. Across from them, I can see the bottom half of a woman in an orange saree and I almost mistake her for a sadhu – India’s orange-clad men who have renounced all material possessions in their search for spiritual illumination.
People come and go. We’ve been at the Haridwar train station for over two hours now, having arrived early on a bus from Rishikesh. It was the smallest bus we’ve been on, or rather, the bus with the smallest, most uncomfortable seats. And this is saying a lot. We’ve been to India three times now, and altogether, this is our thirteenth month. We just finished a month-long yoga teacher training course and are on our way to Dharamsala, high up in the Himalayas, where we plan to do some intense meditation. We’re on the waiting list for a 10 day silent retreat. You do a lot of waiting in India. Most of the time it’s worth the wait.
For a month we’ve been sequestered in a yoga hall with five other students and our guru-ji (respected teacher), a Ph.D in yoga and a brilliant practitioner. We’ve been, for the most part, removed from India at large. Except for the occasional run-in on our few days off with other tourists, a self-proclaimed schizophrenic seeking rupees and a persistent drum seller on the main drag, we have been breathing clean air, eating sattvic (yogic, pure vegetarian) food and sleeping early. All this is a startling contrast to the two months of our trip prior to arriving in the safe haven of Rishikesh’s vast mountains and yoga spaces.
Being back in the real India is a bit of a shock, and nothing is more shockingly Indian than its train stations, thronging and humming with life 24 hours a day. Everyone has their own space but everyone watches each other. People eat, spit, sleep, talk, stare, fight and basically live their lives right out there in the open, despite, or maybe because of the crowds. It’s miraculous even as it’s exhausting. I look up and see someone I’m sure is Caucasion, only he’s in full Indian garb and has the casual confidence of a local. The albinos here always remind me how readily we recognize – and judge – people by the colour of their skin, with all the horrible things this implies.
To my right, an old man sits in an effortless half-lotus potion. There’s bright pink dye running down the back of his white shirt, dried now, and he wears a pink scarf that doesn’t seem to be the source of the dye problem, this time anyway. Ladies chat together on one bench and men on another, always separate, always preferring the company of their own, directly in front of my view. It’s the man between these two benches, by a post that he has claimed, who catches my attention and captivates me the most.
He arrives with a wooden stick and a bag, and sits for awhile, leaning against the post. A great struggle begins. He’s gotten it into his head to remove the contents of his bag. It’s a tight fit and the stuff doesn’t come out easily. But the man’s resilient. He bends over the bag; this doesn’t seem easy for him. He’s an older man, at least 60 in my estimation, though it’s hard to tell here sometimes. He wears a long-sleeved, pale yellow shirt in the Indian style, long and loose, and a white cloth as his pants, or skirt. His scuffed black sandals are neatly stacked by the post. He’s rather meticulous, I can tell. He stands on another mat made from faulty goods packaging – crinkly and shiny, these are common seating aids at train stations; people sell them here for a few rupees apiece at most of the stations I’ve been to.
The man struggles with the bag for a long time. His fingers shake and he doesn’t seem too stable. I want to help him but something stops me. He has a pride about him, a fierce independence that’s familiar to me but I’m not sure from where. Does he remind me of the many older, homeless Indians I’ve seen who have to fend for themselves in adverse circumstances? Is it my grandmother he’s recalling, who resisted help at every turn as she aged and succumbed to eventual mental illness? Is it both, and this man is bridging cultures, worlds for me? There’s something so sad about this struggle he’s engaged in. You almost never see people on their own here. People move, breathe, congregate and travel in packs (the homeless notwithstanding and, tragically, even here, they are not as visible as the rest). As I write this, a family nearby numbers seven – five of them are on two adjoining benches and two sit on the ground in front of the rest with the luggage, on a pink and white cloth. It’s so common to see large families travelling together that the old man’s solitude is striking in contrast.
Is he a widow? Never married? A recluse? Is he sick? It’s impossible to tell. He’s still bent over his bag, trying to retrieve its contents. His bare feet are dirty, long and lean, his calf muscles a good size. Maybe he was really strong once. He wears a black hat that might distinguish him in some way – caste? – but I’m not sure how. Now he’s approaching the frailty of old age. His white hair stands out too – not only out of his cap, but as unusual in a country where most old men dye their hair black or red. It’s very rare to see white-haired men unless they’re extremely old, or sadhus/swamis/gurus living a more natural lifestyle – if you can call dreadlocks, extreme austerities and constant near-nudity natural, and this depends highly on your conditioning and your point of view in the world.
The man’s fingers fumble as he tries to lower the bag around some kind of blanket, the object of his desire at the moment. There’s something else in the bag, something metallic – a bowl, maybe – that’s stopping the bag from easily falling away from the blanket. He pauses to take some water from a plastic bottle and then lifts the bag again, this time from the bottom. Success. He holds has a really pretty purple and orange blanket, thick and cozy-looking, in his hands. With great care he unrolls it and, over the course of a few minutes, neatly spreads it on the mat, which is perpendicular to the post. He kneels down and it looks like he’s praying, his back to me, but I don’t think he is. There is something staunchly atheistic, anarchic even, about him to me.
Now the bag is in his hands and he wipes something off the blanket. Then the bag itself catches his attention. He removes the bowl and a few other things from it, and moves over to the bench on his knees. The family is aware of him and ignoring him at the same time – the former is informed conjecture on my part. He empties the contents of the bag onto the ground underneath the bench. All I can see emerging onto the floor are a few orange peels, but he takes these into his hands and eventually puts them back into the bag. He crawls back to his new home and puts his scattered objects back into the bag. He then spends some time arranging the bag just so – here, he reminds me of my grandmother, who also used to arrange things at great length, and who used to say ‘just so’ to mean ‘exactly this way, to perfection’ – and now he has the perfect pillow.
Finally – wearily? – he sits down, back against the bag/pillow and the post. I feel I’m watching a lone king surveying his land, obtusely and indifferently, from his lair, with the entirety of his existence. He doesn’t rest for long. Minutes later he’s made his way to the far reaches of his blanket, where he neatly folds the edges so the blanket aligns exactly with the packaged goods mat. Satisfied, he crawls back to his pillow, and sits down again to observe his surrounds.
We marvel: he must have only these few things in his whole life. What freedom! Where is he going? Will he stay the night? Who will greet him at his next destination? (He seems utterly without human connection). How will he get the blanket back into the bag? Why isn’t he, like most, staring at us foreigners?
A sadhu sets up shop next to him. He appears much wealthier than the old man. His hair is thick and clean and he has metallic food containers and a glass to drink from. The two don’t speak.
The old man starts playing with a few rupee bills. He rolls them in his hands, over and over. The action is absentminded and deliberate at the same time, somehow.
“Chai. Chai chai chai. Chaiiiiii.”
There are two chai, or tea wallahs (men, sellers) in this part of the station, carrying their heated chai in a metallic holder, and paper cups. So far the old man has not said a word, which I find hard to believe now that I think about it, since I feel I’ve been in dialogue with him for over an hour now. Still silently, he beckons one of the wallahs over. He indicates that he wants a chai with a nod of the head and holds out one of his few bills. I can see it’s taped together in a few different places. Indians are obsessed with clean bills and usually won’t accept torn ones. This wallah is no exception. He discards the bill and walks away. I try to read the old man’s face but get no reaction. A few minutes later he tries again with the second wallah and is rejected for the second time.
We discuss buying him a chai because a chai is such a simple thing to get and such a pleasure to consume but again, we’re thrown by his independence. Some people don’t respond well to being helped, and we can’t tell if he’s one of them. I think of the ladies I saw in Amsterdam’s red light district over fifteen years ago, showing off everything from behind glass. Music comes out to us on the street, but our voices don’t reach them, and there’s no chance of communicating with them, finding out who they are, though everything is superficially visible. Here too, he’s very visible, but it’s an impenetrable division. There is him and there is us.
While he’s being rejected for his chai, an older woman who appears to be talking loudly to herself, spreads a mat on the floor next to me – I’m on a bench. I can see what her packaged-goods mat references: BAR CLIF: CHOCOLATE BROWNIE. I’m guessing she’s never had one of these in her life, but its packaging is now her throne, and indeed, like the old man, there’s something regal about her. She wears a blue saree, has wild grey hair and has an adorable feistiness about her. Where the old man is a master of detail she is thoroughly rough around the edges, almost graceless, except for the dignity and pride that pour out of her like a salve. I can almost feel it soothing my skin. She throws a large bag on the mat and flutters around, chatting to herself. The old man, meanwhile, has laid down on his side for a few minutes, before thinking better of it. He sits back up and catches the old woman’s eye. This is all it takes. She zooms over to him and kneels down, displaying a more perfect posture than I saw during an entire month of intensive yoga. The man is unmoved. He watches her with eyes that seem nonchalant and occasionally gracious while she talks and talks and pats him on shoulder now and then.
Eventually it seems he’s had enough. He says something imperceptible to my ears – his first words of the evening – and she abruptly gets up, nodding in understanding, and says her goodbyes. He then touches his forehead and spreads his hand across his face as she gets up and leaves. She wanders away, sometimes returning to her brownie mat and mostly leaving it alone. We’re in the anteroom of the station, between the front entrance and the platform, where most of the action is taking place. She disappears around the corner to the platform area and we don’t see her again until we have to leave to catch our train.
The old man lies down again, but when I get back from buying a Sprite, he’s sitting with a seller of some strange-looking black plastic boxes all hanging from one central piece of string like a mobile. He’s leaning on the blanket; he’s been invited into the old man’s sacred space. The old man is eating something out of a newspaper. How did I miss this? Where did he get the food? From the black plastic box seller? Did he pay for it? With the taped 10 rupee bill?
What did the woman-in-blue say to him and will they talk again, these two denizens of this summer train station night?
I’m still here, but I’m already nostalgic for these monumental dramas that seem to have no end in this vast, multitudinous country. And this is just what I’ve seen, observed, let alone imagined. The old man chats briefly with the sadhu to his right and asks one of the family members on his left to help him open a little white plastic vile, giving him a large grin before spitting on the floor under the bench. Now he’s laid down to attempt sleep again. I will board my train and inflate my soul with his dreams.
* This story was originally published in The Bactrian Room.