Homeless by Choice
The entrance to my family-owned printing press is in a pathway off a narrow lane, in Amherst Street, the printing hub of Kolkata. In this locality, almost every other door opens into printing presses of varying sizes. There are a number of publishing houses here as well. The massive grilled iron-gate, the pathway that leads past our gate ends at, is the entrance to a reputed one: It is home to the works of several Bengali literary titans. The owners of this printing cum publishing house live on the upper floors of their workplace. They along with staff and visitors to both our premises, including me, frequent this pathway. It’s been a year now that I get off from my car at the start of this short pathway, then walk to our gate. I gingerly avoid an old lady sleeping across the width of the path. At times, I have to wake her in order to step into our gate, at others hop over all her possessions strewn over the length of the pathway.
This lady’s presence is a nuisance to us who use this path, but none of us asks her to go away. It is due to this mental security that she has made this path her home and also perhaps the comfort, since it is cool here from a four-way play of breeze. Our press’s gate is at all times now, in addition to her presence, flanked by five to six suitcases of varying size and colour, from brown to red and black, all belonging to her. Across our gate, is the imposing wall of the publishing house, from which through a series of windows there is a constant whirring of offset machines and the smell of paper. The old lady, leaning alongside this wall on the ground has lined a cooking-stove and several utensils, ladles, steel bowls and plates. This is her makeshift kitchen area. She also has a thin mattress rolled up with a pillow inside leaning perpendicular to this wall. A mauve and white coloured straw mat lies horizontally. However, I have never seen her use these bed gear, preferring as she does to lie on the bare cemented ground during the times I cross her.
The staffs at our press tell me that over the years I wasn’t around and living in Chennai, they have cajoled, even threatened the old lady at our gate to go away. But she refuses to budge, just as long-term tenants do in Kolkata. She is over seventy years, I presume from her appearance. The all-grey hair, now orange from the application of Henna – she plaits and rolls up close to her head with multi-coloured ribbons. Her fair face, now heavily wrinkled, would at one time with its shapely nose on which she still wears a flower nose-stud in gold, along with big beguiling eyes and high cheekbones, been the envy of most women. She wears bright coloured saris, in yellow, orange, and blue. These she drapes in the typical way of rural women from UP and Bihar, but way above her rough ankles adorned in silver anklets but bare feet.
I viewed the old lady’s collection of sari’s, of which she must possess at least fifty or more. They were strewn over the pathway on a whim, as I got off the car one afternoon, on return from a meeting. At times I pass her, when she has her lunch out of a high-rimmed steel plate. She sits on the bare ground, her legs stretched out in front, balancing her plate in one hand. Out of curiosity, from the vantage point of walking across above her head, at times I glance at the food on her plate. There is always a good sized portion of fried as well as curried fish, and a single or mixed vegetable along with rice and dal. But I have never seen or been enveloped in the odour of her cooking. Perhaps she does so before working hours, so as not to cause more inconvenience around her makeshift home.
She smiles at me as I pass her, at times looking up from her plate, asks where I’ve been if away a while when I travel to Chennai. I respond to her queries politely in Hindi, and then walk through our gate, thinking of her on my climb up the stairs to my office on the first floor. She also exchanges pleasantries with my mother who comes to work for a few hours every afternoon – asks her about me and my sister, and our husbands. From her conversation, the lady appears mentally stable. Mother a stickler for cleanliness, is often irritated at the mess in front of our gate and reprimands her, urging her to tidy her belongings. The old lady nods silently, and smiles at mother, who then exasperatedly walks into our gate. I’m a stickler for cleanliness myself, but what infuriates me about the lady’s presence is the unprofessional façade of our press now. This is after all the efforts and expenses to renovate, paint, and spruce the premises, since taking charge recently.
This lady descended upon our gateway only after my father’s passing, and since never facing anything quite like this at places I’ve worked before, I have no precedent to handle this inconvenience. Thus I’m bearing her out of sympathy, but more our mutual helplessness over where would she go if turned away from here. At times when leaving for the day in the evening, I find her squatting in front of the tube-well in the lane at the end of the pathway. She pours steel-pots of water on her head in the process of bathing. I suppose she uses the public toilet that is down the lane for bodily functions she considers more private than bathing, eating, sleeping etc.
One evening, as I briskly walked past her bathing on the road, about to get into my car, I heard her sharp, piercing scream. I turned around worriedly, to find her standing upright, her drenched sari clinging to her, and waist length hair dripping wet plastered on her scalp. She was flinging her arms and legs wildly, yelling at a young woman who looked at her aggressively.
As I stood watching in bewilderment, another young woman, and two young men, joined the two women. The old lady abused all of them in turns as they yelled back at her. It was soon a huge ruckus. But people in the adjacent offices, presses, and houses, perhaps used to this, did not step out. A few passing by stopped on their tracks to view the commotion. I walked closer to the confrontational group, overcome by a protective feeling for this old woman. In spite of my annoyance, she had found shelter in my heart by now. One young woman, whom I recognized from the neighbouring houses at the far end of the lane, started to rebuke the old lady loudly on seeing me.
“Mataji, you are embarrassing all of us, more so – your grandsons…” she said sharply to her, pointing to the two young men with her, “By bathing on the road like this. Why are you living on the road like a beggar? Is it to prove that your two sons and daughters-in-law are ill-treating you? Why can’t you move back into the house? After all, we cook for you, don’t we?”
Even as she shrieked, the young woman looked towards me simultaneous to looking at the old lady, to ensure I was listening. I stood rooted to the ground with shock at her revelation. A whole family living in an adjacent house nearby, then why was this woman at this advanced age on the street? The old lady, shivering from her drenched state, steel pot on the ground, flinging her arms yelled back, as if in response to my mental query:
“That is not my home woman, do you understand?” she said. “After my husband’s death you all have usurped it. I am an outsider now in my own home. I’m happy with my dignity under the open sky along with my husband.”
I looked at each member of the group, allowing the full impact of the old lady’s revelation sink in. Then I slowly walked to my car, the driver following me silently, from also viewing the spectacle he was quite used to. As he manoeuvred the car out of the narrow lane, I tried to effectively navigate out of the maze of my thoughts. In youth we tend to overlook in our dominance of the aged, their need for dignity and individuality, in the face of their physical or financial dependence. But in spite of diminishing physical ability, home is where the mind can have a free existence, and heart longs to be, not merely the confines of a physical dwelling. I understood the old lady’s need for dignity, personal space, independence, but was at a loss in comprehending her extreme choice of homelessness – in opting for a street dwelling over a real home. But then isn’t the capriciousness of human existence its uniqueness?