He stood there gazing into the horizon, patiently waiting for his bus. The stifling August heat had retreated for the day. What little remained of the monsoons loomed large overhead. A steady breeze from the North made the short towel wrapped around his greying head flutter. A worn green shirt and white lungi clung to his sun beaten skin. His slight frame looked weary from the day’s proceedings. Beside him lay his day’s work. A couple of low grade plastic sacks tied at the neck. They looked heavy.
A bus going to Walayar (The border check post between Tamil Nadu and Kerala) was approaching. Commuter hopefuls stuck their hands out in an attempt to catch the bus driver’s attention. Much to their chagrin, the bus screamed past them. He, however, didn’t bat an eye. He looked at me with a wry smile and said, ” These buses never stop at Ettimadai. You have to wait for the ones that are headed to Palakkad. The drivers are much nicer.” The man in question is Satish and he is a rag picker.
Satish has been a rag picker all his life. Every day he scours the streets of Coimbatore to try and fill his coffers. He earns barely enough to sustain himself. Strangely, he cared more for the mistreatment he gets from public transport vehicles. “There used to be a time when buses stopped for everyone. Now they don’t have time for anything. They see me standing in a bus stop and they just speed off. Without money you are nothing. No one cares about you. Auto drivers? Bah! They’re worse! They don’t even have the decency to look at me.” A grim look of acceptance marked his visage as he seemed to reflect on his plight. There were no extravagant gestures or facial contortions as he spoke. Just a creased forehead and folded arms. Society has forgotten this man.
Satish painstakingly collects pieces of iron and cement throughout the day, so he can catch the evening bus to his dwelling in Pichanur (a fledgling town near Walayar) and sell his ‘goods’ to a recycling outlet. These outlets often underpay people like Satish. Falling victim to the strata of society he belongs to- the voiceless.
The conversation lulled as I had nothing concrete to add to the man’s misery. A bystander who was listening in on the conversation pointed to the rags and asked, “How much for one of those?” Satish glanced down at his belongings and replied, “One bottle.” A low guttural laugh erupted from within Satish as the bystander walked away disgusted. Satish looked at me with amusement. As if he was waiting for me to join the other man. Upon being asked, “Why do you waste your money? Why don’t you buy some food for yourself and support your family?” To which he laughed even more and pointed at his open cavity. He had no teeth. His mouth was as naked as a new born baby’s. “What good is food to an old man with no teeth? The bottle keeps me happy. I get around 65 rupees from my collection. The bottle is about 60.”
“I have no real family. They’re all dead.” Suddenly lighting up as he added, “…except my sister. She works as a flower vendor at the big school inside. Do you know her?” – I did not. Hope shone in his eyes for a moment; eyes that revealed a soul desperate to connect with society. “Yes, of course.” I replied. He smiled proudly.
As dusk began to set in, another bus was headed our way. One glance and Satish picked up his rags and edged towards the road. As the bus came closer the sign board became more visible. It read – Coimbatore to Palakkad. Just as he said, the bus did stop and Satish climbed aboard. He looked at me through the window, smiled and nodded. Grateful that someone took the time to acknowledge him.
“One ticket to Pichanur.”
The rag picker was going back home. To a town where he can go back to leading his inconspicuous life. To a town whose name when translated from the vernacular read –Beggar Town.