FROM A distance, it could be mistaken for a pile of rags. Closer up, it takes the form of a frail, old man in a tattered white shirt, swathed in bundle of colourful blankets. He sleeps in a foetal position on a divider opposite the market in Sector 6, Panchkula. On one side of the street is the Civil Hospital; on the other, is a row of houses with manicured lawns.
In the day, Baba, as he is fondly called by hawkers in the area, is guarded by a line of autorickshaws on both sides of his makeshift home under a sprawling tree. His belongings, spare blankets and clothes, are neatly folded and covered by a piece of cloth. His utensils are spotless. “He has lived here for almost a year. He mostly sleeps through the day and wakes only to eat or relieve himself. He doesn’t have one leg, but uses a cane to walk around,” says Pushpa. Since he arrived at the spot about this time last year, he has not moved.
Pushpa was an Asha worker three years ago at the Civil Hospital nearby. Now, she sells tea and paranthas on the roadside as she couldn’t “handle the pain and sickness inside” the hospital. She has another role, too, that of Baba’s keeper. She feeds him twice a day and makes tea for him. He calls her ‘beti’ and is comfortable in her presence even as they speak to each other in two different tongues. She adds, “I never took care of my parents-in-law and now I feel guilty. This is an opportunity to make things better. My own children don’t care about my well-being and my husband is an alcoholic.”
Pushpa, who has a stream of friends in the area who stop by to have chai or chat, gets medicines from the hospital for Baba’s frequent fever spells. The cold that has escalated in the last three days is predicted to get worse in the coming days, but Baba seems unfazed. He wakes and unwraps some paranthas he must have saved from last night. An autorickshaw driver stops by to give him a plastic bag full of tea. He carefully pours it into his bowl and starts drinking. He speaks a few words of Hindi in an Eastern accent, then resorts to broken Bangla.
“Ekta paa acchha nahin hai (One of my legs has gone bad). I’ve lived here for a year. I don’t feel cold, but yes, it gets difficult sometimes. I get food here and the kids living on the footpath are nice to me. I have no home, no work,” Baba says. His name, he says, is Bangru. But he doesn’t remember his age or where he worked before. He has braved the fog of the last two days and says he does not want to move anywhere else for warmth or protection from the cold. His adoptive family, however, is fiercely protective of him. People give him money, clothes and blankets from time to time.
Avtar Singh, the 32-year-old auto driver who brings him tea daily, says there are also some who try to steal his things. “I don’t know what’s wrong with people; they try robbing a homeless man. I am handicapped, so I can understand why people would ignore me. Life is tough, but only those who are less privileged can understand their own kind,” says Avtar, who was himself afflicted with polio as a child and lives in Pinjore with his wife, who is also differently abled. They met at a special school as kids and were married only recently.
Pushpa says she has nightmares about Baba dying. “I care for him as my own. I too have a home in Chandimandir, but I live here to take care of my stall and go home only on Sundays. In this world, you have to learn to fend for yourself. But Baba is not in a condition to do that,” she adds. A family of migrants from Bihar who knits blankets also count themselves among Baba’s keepers. They come here for two months every year to sell their wares. Naseema (28) has a brood of three boys and one girl. Two other elder daughters live in Bihar. She says her kids love Baba as they don’t have grandparents.
“My husband tries changing his clothes, but Baba just wouldn’t let him. He doesn’t even wear warm clothes. Last night, I woke up at around 1 am and he was awake. I asked him if he couldn’t sleep due to the cold. But he just shook his head and said it was his memories,” says Naseema, who believes Baba must have had a tough past. But she feels that with care, he has become more responsive. Avtar says Baba doesn’t want to be moved elsewhere. Pushpa buys him samosas whenever he wants them.
When asked if he would like to live indoors, Baba says, “Aamaar baari onek doorey (My home is far away from here),” adding, “I don’t have a home, so I must stay here.”