Tired and a little restless, I walked outside onto the Ashram Road. It was early evening, a busier time of the day, with a lot of rickshaws, cars, motorbikes, and trucks passing through. I had just finished sitting in front of my computer for two hours trying to find words to write and was in desperate need of a nice walk. I walked left alongside the road for a couple of minutes and ran into Pradipbhai, who was trying to find his way to one of the laaris, stands, which held clay maatlas, pots, which kept the water cool in the 40 degrees’ Celsius weather.
I had met Pradipbhai in late 2015 when I came to Gandhi Ashram for the first time. Gandhi Ashram, situated on Ashram Road along the banks of the Sabarmati River is where Mahatma Gandhi stayed from 1917-1930. It was one of the main centers, the birthplace of many initiatives which took place during the fight for independence. It is also home to Manav Sadhna, a non-profit organization which works with marginalized communities in the slum nearby the Ashram. I was a full-time volunteer there at the time and each day, after coming back from volunteering in one of the slums, I saw Pradibhai organizing shoes. He took them from the ground to the shelves, neatly placing them in rows.
While spending his days at Manav Sadhna, Pradipbhai has some activities he keeps to. He organizes the shoes, works on some brail exercises, or gives some mean massages! (taught to him by one of the co-founders of Manav Sadhna, Virenbhai)
As days went by, a routine commenced. When I saw Pradibhai, I said, “Kem Cho Pradipbhai!” (How are you, Pradibhai!” and upon hearing the sound of my voice he said, Ha! Rinaben! Majama!” (Yes! Sister Rina! Good!). When you first look at Pradipbhai you notice a blind man with eyes slightly closed. However, it isn’t his blindness you may notice at first. It is the unmistakable smile on his face.
There were many days, as I came in motorbike or rickshaw back to Manav Sadhana from one of the slums I was volunteering in, that I noticed Pradipbhai walking on the side of the road, using his stick to carefully navigate through the busy Ahmedabad traffic. On certain days, I used to see him by a busy four-way intersection. I was always amazed to see him walking along this busy road by himself, but also curious to know what it would be like. What would it be like to walk in the shoes of Pradibhai?
After Pradipbhai had some water, we began walking towards the direction I came from. This was also the direction of his home. As we walked closer to where I was staying, I asked him if I could accompany him all the way home. He replied with an enthusiastic yes, so we continued walking. After a couple of minutes, he stopped, and told me he forgot his cap at the pani puri stand, where he was before I had met him (it is a part of his routine most days to get pani puri, a traditional Indian snack, before going home). Before going to retrieve the hat, I asked him what color his cap was. Instantly, as the words came out of my mouth, Pradipbhai’s face became perplexed.
I walked away, a little ashamed for even asking the question, I was overcome by the sheer thoughtless space which my words came from. While I have become more mindful of my words, I realized how mechanized they had been and it could have been anyone who asked the same question. I no longer saw Pradipbhai as a blind man after spending time with him, so the question slipped out. This incident also made me realize how we lucky we are to be able to know the color of our clothes or the vibrant nature of our surroundings, it is something we don’t think about when we wake up in the morning.After retrieving the hat, I noticed a security guard bringing Pradipbhai closer to the side of the road. After thanking him, he continued our walk. People going by in rickshaws or motorbikes stared at us as we walked. Horns honked and Pradipbhai squeezed along the edge of the road. I followed him, making small talk, and observed what it would be like to walk this alone everyday. I asked him if he was ever scared and as more close by honking commenced, he told me he was.
As we walked, a woman began speaking to Pradipbhai and told me she was one of his neighbors. Another man came a couple of minutes later, abruptly held his hand, and navigated him across one of the bridges we were crossing. A couple of minutes later, we arrived at a steep staircase where again, one of the men standing close by at one of the little shops took Pradipbhai by the arm and showed him to the top of the staircase.
We walked down the stairs to a maze of alleyways which led to his home. Pradipbhai walked through the maze and standing in one of the corners, was his brother. His brother led him home and I followed closely. I didn’t know Pradipbhai lived his brother’s family. After spending some time chatting with his family and having some warm milk, I decided to leave.
Here I was thinking Pradipbhai walked home, day in and day out, alone and quite possibly lonely. That walk reminded me of something really special. There are always people and we are never so lonely as we think we are. Being alone is sometimes necessary in order to have one’s own space, but there will always be those people out there invisibly supporting us.
Through that 15-minute walk, there were many souls who came by and guided him. I was deeply mistaken and although I don’t know if Pradipbhai feels lonely as many of us do, I do know now that he is never alone.
As I walked out, I said bye and looked back to Pradipbhai who, again, had that unmistakeable smile on his face and said “Ha! Rinaben! Aavjo!” (Yes! Sister Rina! See you later!)