We decided it was time we had nice fish fries and curry for lunch that afternoon and so we started on our quest. The air conditioner in the car wheezed, unsuccessfully trying to suck out all that heat from within.
It was when I was adjusting the vent of the AC that I saw her, an old lady not more than a little bundle of bones, sitting at a very busy intersection reaching out to the sea of people walking around her in a silent plea to help her cross the road.
She had sandy brown sunglasses with jet-black ladybug spots. The glasses were too big for her face. On her head she wore a red bandana with white spirally designs covering part of her hair the wrong way so that the knot was tied on top of her head rather then under her hair. She was holding a bottle of half-full reddish pink vitamin water. Her fingernails were especially long and dirty, the kind you imagine witches have on Hallow’s Night.
People hurrying along around her took little notice and some of them misunderstood her gestures as that of begging, which wasn’t a big mistake since that’s what she was, a roadside beggar.
Some dropped a few coins and some patted their pockets to demonstrate that they didn’t have change. She was steadfastly taking in the money, putting it in her dirty yellow bag all the while gesturing for one of them to help her cross the road.
I rushed out of the car, over to her side and asked her if she wanted to cross the road. All the woman could do was nod and raise her feeble hand.
I held her fragile hand and she heaved her body up. With her back bent, she managed to move when I told her it was OK to do so. All this while, I could see her struggling. We made slow progress as cars and other vehicles waited for her to move across. My mind was debating whether I should carry her but she had a firm hold and her pace was determined though slow.
After what seemed to be an hour, while I think only 10 minutes elapsed, we reached the other side. I sat her at a new intersection under a tree, a brief respite from the unbearable heat. As she settled down she gently waved me away, I gave her some money and that was the first time she looked at me, a feeble thank you was uttered and she gave me a slight smile.
I knelt in front of her and when I asked her where she wanted to go, she pointed across a larger road. I gaped and then, collecting myself, I asked her if I could take her across. She just shook her small head and said, “I’ll go after a few days.” English is a funny language. I think that’s what she said, but she might have meant that she would go after awhile.
Where was she going at 1:30 in the afternoon, this frail old woman? What was so important? What would she do in this incredibly hot sun? Does she have a family or a shelter? I wondered. Yet, she seemed to have her destination in her mind. All she had in the world seemed to be in her dirty little yellow bag.
I walked away from her as she waved me away, not knowing what to do, feeling that I had let her down somehow by being clueless.
Farewell my fellow traveler, I hope you reached your destination; I hope you found your shelter. We live in a country where we care little for our seniors, where nursing homes are common; there are many of your age ignored by us, people my age, walking resolutely with just their pride and a little bag.
I belong to the kind who drive our cars and shield our eyes and think that all is well and lovely with the world. You took that shield away that day and made me see things for what they are.
Maliha Jafri can be reached at email@example.com.