I saw him one nippy November evening sitting on a pavement under a row of Gulmohar trees on a bungalowed street on Coyaji road. He wore an old light brown corduroy suit, a dark bowler hat, and was firmly engrossed in poring over a book under the dim sodium light of the lamppost. There was a gentle wind blowing that night and the trees cast their swaying shadows on the mossy wall behind him, the pale yellow light lending a mellow gossamer glow to the setting, almost ethereal in its quality.
There were a couple of neatly folded blankets, a small pile of books and some other knick knacks huddled under a small blue canvas sheet fashioned like a tent some distance away, that made up the tiny universe he had built around himself. I wondered what his story was.
He seemed so out of place there on the pavement, yet somehow completely at home, his face devoid of any hint of despair so common to people forced to live on the street. The polarity intriguing, to say the least.
It was as if he was a professor who had suddenly vanished from his library one night in some parallel universe and now had re-appeared on this street, in this reality, still blissfully unaware of the change.
I parked my car a few feet away, struggling to take his picture in the poor light, but scared to get too close and disturb a natural shot. And there was always the risk that he would get upset and not allow me to take one. So I kept in the shadows and he kept to his.
But all the time I was there, he did not look up even once, his manner calm and unhurried, unaffected by honking of cars and milieu of life as it zipped past him. His tiny universe immune to world. Since then, every time I went by that road, I looked out for him. It was strangely reassuring to find his quiet figure huddled over his books, always reading. And like readers do the world over, I sensed a kindred spirit in him. Our two seemingly contrasting worlds overlapping for that brief moment in time in our shared joy of reading.
Often I thought of striking a conversation with him, but got cold feet. What if he did not want to be disturbed or was rude and dismissed me like some errant schoolgirl trying to intrude on his space or turned out to be a serial killer in disguise. Of course the last bit was entirely a product of my ‘crime patrol’ infused imagination. For nothing about him spoke of violence. And so I let him be and went about my precious busy life.
A few months later, there was a small column in the newspaper about a man being bludgeoned to death on the street. His story was like countless other crime stories that flood our city dailies and would not have mustered more than a sigh, had I not caught the blue canvas sheet peeking out of the picture. He was my ‘lamppost man’.
His name I learnt was Ravindrakumar Bali. He was apparently an ex-army officer, a captain, who had left the army after 17 years of service. No one knew where his family was or if he had any. He had been killed late at night by an drunk passerby for not parting with a matchbox. An argument followed and the drunk man picked up a cement block lying nearby and hit him on the head. I wondered what his last thoughts were as he lay dying on the street. Was he missing someone, somebody? Was his being, so enrobed in silence always, now abuzz with things he wanted to say in those last moments? Bali died in hospital that night. Since no one came forward to claim his body, he ended up in the city morgue.
A life was snuffed out for a matchbox that cold February night and the rest of us continued our journey around the sun. His tiny universe was not so immune after all.
This month, its almost a year since I first saw him. In hindsight I wish I had said hello, probably shared a story or two, made a new friend. But it was too late now. Too late to make amends with a stranger I chanced under a lamppost.
So I decided to write about him....since he loved to read so much. Probably he is reading this piece somewhere right now and I want to let him know, he did not go into the night unseen, unmourned.