She crosses me and stands on my extreme edge, almost on tip toe, to catch the last few rays of the winter sun. Her clothes are damp and smell faintly of garbage; she is cold. There are a couple of hours of duty left, with two more garbage points to sort out, and then a long bus ride home. I am familiar with her tiredness; it makes her nearly sink into my rough macadam around this time every day. Her co-worker follows in a minute with a small plastic glass of tea as he usually does. She smiles and starts telling him of her son’s impending wedding.
My body resounds with steps. They are so easy to distinguish: The fast step of the employed who need to return to their place of work after a half hour away for lunch; the slow steps of pairs who enjoy each others’ company; the eager steps of youngsters with some money to spend; the labored ones of men pushing carts or carrying gas cylinders; the leisurely pace of the odd tourist, though they are too focused to come here in the Middle; the uneven shuffle of the shop owner who steps out for a minute to stretch; the weightless paws of dogs. My belly hums with electricity and the underground transmissions of water and energy. Above me, voices call out, chattering, discussing, instructing, commanding, buying, selling, informing,declaring, persuading, transacting, spitting, coughing, hawking, urinating… I barely miss a scratch or a hum. Horns honk incessantly, mobile phones ring often. Paranthas are chewed during the day, policemen are given placatory drinks at night. It all falls into a harmonious pattern, you’ll be surprised.
Except when something strikes a discordant note, and I, for a moment, pay all my attention to it. A scooterist fell yesterday and couldn’t get up. His not getting up was the loudest moment.
But it passed; a small crowd gathered to help him. Or that young girl who drank too much at the new expensive bar and vomited. Her helplessness was screaming. At such moments, I shrink a bit. I want to gather myself to go help. But my role is to not move so that everyone else can. I can just lie here, in my circular solitude, bearing witness.
Nearly every time I myself have tried to investigate the hidden spaces (in some archway, peeking through a closed gate) I have ended up encountering men in their embarrassed underwear — bathing, lounging, passing time till duty calls. I retreat hastily, with so vague a visual impression of what I saw that I can’t quite make out if those men were dhaba workers, peons, watchmen, vendors… But in this instance, somewhere behind in one of the blocks, it was a relief to see a fully dressed man emerging on his cycle!