He lived in a building called Ganesh Baug, bang opposite mine, a floor above though, the second, to be precise. Being on the first floor, I had to look up to see him standing in the balcony, staring at the sky and humming a tune. Neelkanthmama, as I called him—I was a kid then—had a family. His mother, an elder brother, the brother’s erudite wife and their little daughter shared the Tam Brahm, middle class residence in Matunga. Often, there would be bitter quarrels among them and I would hear raised voices. There were whispers in the locality about how Neelu (as everyone else mostly called him) was wasting his life, trying to pursue the pipe dream of becoming a singer. Many, I heard, tried to reason with him and make him see sense, but he wasn’t swayed. He was convinced that he was born to sing. I don’t remember whether he completed his graduation but I do recollect that he didn’t stick to any job for too long. None of those were his calling. Sadly, the fights in the house got more vicious and resulted in the lady of the house walking out with the daughter, never to return. This was, if I remember right, after Neelu was thrown out of the house for being a ‘wastrel’. The old matriarch passed away too, I presume, of a broken heart and helplessness. Next, we saw Neelu outside a ration shop opposite Matunga station. He had become a coolie. He would come to our building often, to rest his wearied head and for food, which kind neighbours, who knew of his misfortune, offered him. Someone got him a job and accommodation too. But his heart revolted. There was no melody in the work he did. He opted out, much to the anger of those who tried to ‘reform’ him. Everyone who knew him availed of his services at the ration shop and paid him more than was due to him, hoping that it would sustain him and keep him alive. One day, I heard some commotion outside my house. A throng of people surrounded a blackened, impoverished Neelu, whose foot was bleeding profusely. His brother held his arm between his thumb and forefinger, not daring to touch the soiled skin of his younger brother, which hadn’t seen soap or water for days. Apparently, as he slept on the footpath one night, a BEST bus had run over his leg, leading to a crush injury. The foot had to be amputated. Neelu was back home but for a very short time. His brother, shamed into becoming a recluse, by his impending divorce, packed his bags and left home one day, to an unknown destination. Neelu was back on the streets, back to carrying the load on his head and shoulders, that fed many families, . Only, there was now a pathetic limp to his gait. Someone got him a Jaipur foot. That helped a little. His body was better balanced now. I cannot say the same thing about his mind. Homeless, penniless, shunned, he often sat on the steps of the ration shop staring vacantly into space. Once, I saw him stretch his palm to beg. It broke something inside me. I wanted to help him with a rupee or two but the thought that if I did so, it would kill his dignity, stopped me from doing so. Time passed. I shifted out of Matunga. Neelu continued his work as a coolie and at some point of time sat outside Asthika Samaj to beg. I remembered that he used to stay in a house with a family with a mother who loved him. How fortunes change! When I saw him a year ago, he was sitting on the road, in a queue of beggars, nothing to distinguish him from those who had probably never seen good days. Nobody who saw the scruffy, bearded, stinking old man would have guessed his antecedents or thought that he had once slept in a warm bed. He looked ill and defeated. I stopped where he sat, placed a 100-rupee note in his bowl, called him by his name and implored him to buy some food. He did not recognise me but his eyes sparkled. As I walked ahead, I could not help but look back. Tears stung my eyes. I saw him again a week later and this time, I was more generous with the money. That was the only help I could provide at that point, if you could call it that. I confided, about Neelu’s plight, in a colleague and we thought of approaching an NGO or some charitable organisation to get him admitted to a hospital. By the time my colleague returned from a short vacation, I couldn’t locate Neelu. I looked for him at all his favourite haunts in vain. I mentioned this a month later to an old neighbour I met by chance. “Don’t you know?” he asked me. Neelu passed away last month. The owner of Giri Stores found him lying on the steps of the shop when he came to open it in the morning. Giri Stores, by the way, is the place that is packed with every pathway to God. It sells prayer books, religious essentials and spiritual paraphernalia. I don’t know if Neelu chose his deathbed with care. Neelkanthmama was not my friend. He was my neighbour. Yet, when I heard of his death, I felt a profound sense of loss. I wondered whether life would have been different for him, had he been a young guy today, trying his luck in a reality show. I have no answer to that. Now, he was free! I don’t even know whether he had a song on his lips when he breathed his last. But, whenever a bird warbles at the break of dawn, I can’t help but think of the singer whose song died before it could be heard.
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