“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” – John Steinbeck
The sun is at its highest point. I am at my lowest. I walked and walked until now I just have to stop. My clothes are soaked with sweat. A prickly heat rash rages round my waist, across my shoulders, through my armpits and round my heels. It stings and it itches, but only when I think about it. The difficult task is to relax the mind when it is twisted and angry and summon up the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. Succeed at that and the itching fades fast.
I’m tired. Ferocious heat. Thirsty. Force myself to drink warm, chemical-flavoured water. Eyelids so heavy. Want to lie down and sleep. Ten minutes, an hour. It doesn’t matter: there are more hours in this day than I can walk. At home, time is precious. Out here, I have cut everything unimportant so I have bought back time. I have as much of it as I need.
I’m irritable, impatient, out of love with India. Walking immerses me so deep that at times I feel I am drowning in it all, in the India described so well by Naipaul, “the broken roads and footpaths, the brown gasoline-and-kerosene haze adding an extra sting to the fierce sunlight, mixing with the street dust and coating the skin with grit and grime; the day-long cicada-like screech, rising and falling, of the horns of the world’s shabbiest buses and motorcars.”
I’m on the outskirts of a village. Pink bougainvillea flowers form tangled arches over people’s doorways. I peel off my clammy shirt, remove my shoes and socks and flop into the shade of a bus shelter. The floor is covered in litter, broken glass, tobacco spit and peanut shells. I don’t care. I sit cross-legged to keep the pressure off the soles of my feet. They feel as though they are on fire. Sweat pools in my Adam’s apple. Mid-day, middle of the journey, mid life crisis: hell, it’s been hard to get this far. Looking back, I feel I have done so little. So much remains to be done. Looking ahead down the road it is hard to convince myself to keep going, that things won’t always be this hard. But I cannot give in: I’m committed to the day now and this filthy bus shelter is no place to call The End. I can’t give in, but nor do I think I can make it to the end.
A very poor couple approach. I suspect they are homeless. Their movements are slow. They sit down next to me without speaking. They are sitting time away. The old man has a long beard and matted white hair. The lady is as fragile as a bird, old and hunched with empty eyes. Their clothes are faded. They chew paan, a mild narcotic. Their few remaining teeth are stained red. They spit continuously, a stream of red saliva splashing at my feet. It’s too hot to care. I’m broken.
The old woman attempts to beg from me. It is the first time this has happened. She holds out her empty hand and gestures with her cloudy eyes. It is hard to see such poverty. But it is also alarmingly easy to ignore. What would happen if I gave her a hundred pounds? What impact would it have on this couple? It wouldn’t really be a big deal for me. I can earn another hundred quid sometime. But I don’t do it. I don’t even summon the energy to smile politely. I turn my eyes and look away.
In the distance an engine ticks over. I hear a sweeping broom and the rattle of a water pump. These small sounds accentuate the quietness. The three of us sit in silence. I wonder what they are thinking. The lady rubs her husband’s back, tenderly. She stands and walks slowly away down the road. A while later she returns, carrying a cup of chai given by a kinder soul than me. She hands it to her husband. And he takes the cup, and drinks. She sits back on her haunches. Not a word has been spoken. My life, my walk feels stupid.
I summon the resolve to continue and lift my bag back up onto my shoulders. The heat thumps me as I step out from the shade. I smile at the elderly couple. I’m light-headed, tired and weak. They smile back at me. I walk on.