I encountered him upon alighting from a bus somewhere in the south of India. He was one of a crowd of people, people selling trinkets and begging from their well-heeled visitors. Hundreds of people met our bus, but he is the one I remember.
He was misshapen, startlingly so. He seemed to have been put together out of spare parts, assembled and reassembled in ways that did not fit at all. At first he seemed not exactly human. He was more like a table than a man, a walking piece of furniture: his legs and hands walked along the ground, but the trunk of his body was parallel to it, his chest and stomach facing skyward, his head erect. It must have been extremely difficult to keep his head erect for hours on end. And to walk along -- backwards, on all fours, craning his neck in order to see where he was going. Our eyes met and he averted his gaze, but not before I saw the flash of his intelligence. This was a physical disability, not a mental one. A mind, one as fine as my mind, was imprisoned in that impossibly twisted body.
He received alms in a basket strapped around his chest. I slipped a 10,000 rupee note into is and he nodded, again averting his eyes from mine. His fellows, all able-bodied, laughed and hurried him along; off he went, trundling along with surprising speed to the next bus. Running, in his own remarkable version of running.
It is part of Indian apocrypha that such disabilities are deliberately inflicted upon babies by their parents, in order to make them more compelling beggars. I have no way of knowing whether or not this is true, but one hears it all the time. It is difficult to imagine taking your perfect baby and beginning to twist, twist -- but it is also difficult to imagine watching your children starve to death. I have no ready frame of reference for either terrible vision.
But I do know that I saw intelligence in those black eyes; intelligence and pride, too much pride to linger for long in the imperialism of my gaze. I do know that I saw him running -- running! -- with his fellows. I do know that he slept somewhere each night, that he shared his earnings with someone. Within his body was the soul of a young man, one who had learned to let his friends joke about his condition, probably let them use him as a table sometimes, as part of the joke. This had been the price of friendship for him.
Perhaps we, to whom friendship comes so cheaply, might think it much too high a price to pay. But then, we have never been there.