There is something magical about being out late at night, especially when you’re alone. Something powerful about it. Maybe that there are so few people about, and you’re one of them. Unafraid. You feel eerily happy about how safe you feel as a woman, being out at night. Perhaps it’s simply that – being able to rebel, being able to look people in the eye and shake them off as you stride past, fearless. Back when I was in Pondicherry, there was one night when I felt like the world was collapsing around me. I needed to escape, and I rode alone to the beach at midnight, and sat there for an hour watching the waves crashing. It was exhilarating, to not be confined inside walls by twilight.
I just stepped out to get some medicines. It’s only around 8 in the evening, but it feels like midnight because of the lockdown. The roads are easy to cross for there are only a few stray bikes, almost no one is about, and the lamp posts seem to shine extra bright to make up for all the missing headlights.
As I walk to the pharmacy across the street, I see a homeless person on its steps, drinking what’s left of a bottle of water. He immediately extends his hand towards me, and I turn away by instinct. That’s how you deal with poverty in India – you pretend to not see it until it moves away from the perimeter of your eye. You see them, they see you. They know you see them. You know they know you see them. But it’s still somehow easier to pretend, than to look them in the eye and say you don’t care.
Pharmacies are allowed to run normally during the lockdown while grocery stores close down by noon, which explained the huge array of snacks stacked on a table near the counter; I was impressed by their responsive demand-driven marketing. I swiftly pay for the medicines, and add a packet of biscuits as an afterthought. Thirty rupees. Ten for the paracetamol, twenty for the biscuits. As the guy processes the bill, I catch myself wondering if anyone would actually give twenty rupees in cash to beggars. Probably not; they tend to be valued in coins – one, two, perhaps an occasional magnanimous five. Never twenty.
But we are large-hearted when it comes to helping in kind, aren’t we. It gives the sense that we aren’t encouraging people to beg, but simply helping them in their fight for basic needs. Besides, giving money might mean that they spend it on alcohol, and I’d obviously not want that.
Another part of my brain smirks, thoroughly amused at that thought, at this power dynamic that is obviously present even as I play the altruistic, anonymous stranger; deciding what a homeless person may or may not do with the paltry sum I might graciously decide to bestow upon him.
As I get out of the store, I see him moving towards a street vendor, gesturing him for a free banana. My home was in the other direction, and for a second, I wonder if I should simply go home. The moment of hesitation draws the attention of the man again, and he immediately reached out to claim the biscuits, as if he already sensed they were his.
As I slowly walk back, I can’t help wondering if he even liked Good Day butter cookies, and what flavour he might have gone for if he had been the one making the choice.