Only those who want their stories told appear on this website. This ‘person unknown’ standing alone on a street is the exception. He was unable to express himself and the possibility of informed consent was a distant ideal. I hope that he would have wanted his story told, however brief and partial. I followed him discreetly all day.
Early in the morning I noticed him gesturing for chai and a street seller passing him a clay cup. He sat in the gutter drinking and then, when another street seller ambled past, the ‘person unknown’ tugged gently at his trousers, near his ankle, seeking food. This angered the street seller who shouted then kicked him hard in the back twice and threw a coconut at him as he scrambled across the street to escape the onslaught. The ‘unknown man’ shielded his head and ambled away.
With the exception of a small plastic bag he carried all his possessions on his back. He had three expressions on his face for the next six hours: an occasional polite ‘please can I have . . . ‘, a rare quizzical look, or, most often, a blank expressionless gaze. Often he stood alone in a street oblivious to the danger posed by the traffic rushing by. He sat, he stood, he walked, he sat again, occasionally talking quietly to an unseen person next him. He looked thirty but was probably in his teens. Being mentally disabled, homeless, and alone, took its toll on his health. His life will be short.
The noise, the chaos, the heat, the humidity and dust, were all energy sapping. He sat, he stood, he walked, and he sat again. He sat . . . he stood . . . he walked . . . and he sat again. He sat . . . . . he stood . . . . . he walked . . . . he sat again and again and again. This routine changed only if he came across a physical and psychological crutch such as a bench or a chair which enabled him to eat, rest, or sleep, in relative comfort. The ‘person unknown’ was often on his own standing statue-like. Every person passed him by. He ambled slowly, directionless, without a vestige of enthusiasm or hope. Occasionally his backdrop would remind me of the stark disparity between rich and poor, able and disabled, in modern India. It has the second fastest growing economy in the world, yet the number of Indian people living in slums has increased by 100%, in the last two decades. Kolkata has 89% of its 14 million people living below the poverty line
Many battle against prejudice and karmic belief that disabled people are at fault for their disability which affects their capacity to lead a normal life. Thankfully there are charities working with communities, especially in poorer areas, to change attitudes. People signalled their compassion by offering sandwiches or chai. ‘Person unknown’ has no family or friends or neighbours, and survives only with the help and generosity of passers-by. He is an outlander of humanity, abandoned by society, but there remained a hint of warmth towards him.
Later in the day he noticed me observing him. I desperately wanted to communicate with him to hear his story but this was not possible. He gave me a quizzical look when I gestured ‘Hello’. Onlookers gave me a similar quizzical look but were unable to help me communicate with him because, they said, “He’s mad”. We exchanged non-communication. I waved goodbye and he gave me his quizzical look.