The Plight of the Invisible

He was lying on the pavement of a busy street. He was the human image of filth. Flies were buzzing around his nose. He was lying in his feces, his shirtless torso & matted hair covered in dust. His pants might have once had a color, but now it had acquired the sorry hue of dirt. His bloodshot eyes were open, his eyeballs hidden by fluttering eyelids. His half open mouth was drooling.

It was Sunday evening. We were walking along an arterial road of Chennai – Radhakrishnan Salai. We were running an errand, I forget what exactly – something trivial & silly. We were looking for an address when we saw him. He was in a piteous state.

We looked at each other, our errand hovering in the background. But we had to do something to help him, he was clearly mentally deranged. Surely, many non-profit organizations serve the mentally ill.

So we called “Udhavum Karangal” (Helping Hands), an NGO that serves orphans & the destitute. A grumpy voice answered our call. “You’re calling on Sunday, a holiday” the voice said accusingly. But this man is very ill, we pleaded. “Have you called the police? That’s the procedure”.

We called the Police Control Room & made our request. Could the police please pick up the man? “Can the old man walk?” asked the police. We begged the police, he can’t be more than 30 but he looks like hell. Could you please pick him up? “You have to call the ambulance, #108 for that” we were told.

We called #108. The line was dead.

It was 4:30 PM. The Chennai sun was doing what it does best, which is scorching everything below. It was unbearably hot. Protected by a clump of trees, we were sweating profusely. The man was tossing & turning on the hot cement pavement, helpless & unprotected from the merciless sun.

We called the police again. “Please Sir. Help him”. They assured us that they will contact the ambulance. In the meantime, they agreed to send someone in 15 minutes.

We were standing directly opposite the “City Center” Mall, right next to the “Levis Strauss” outlet. Countless cars, bikes and people whizzed by. Men & women dressed to the nines. Youngsters out to have a good time. Parents dragging their children for a quick prayer in a nearby make-shift temple . Hardly anyone stopped to offer assistance. The battered man writhing on the street did not merit a single glance of pity.

An inspector promptly arrived in 20 minutes. “This is the procedure” he said briskly. “If anyone is willing to accompany him to the hospital & act as his relative, I’ll call the ambulance immediately”. He then took a closer look at the man. “This guy? We’ve admitted him to KMCH (Kilpauk Medical College Hospital) twice so far. Within a few days of his release, he’s back on the streets” he said, shaking his head.

We called “Udhavum Karangal” again. Please, we begged. Can someone from your organization accompany this man to KMCH? “We are full. We can’t take him in” we were told. You don’t have to take him in, can you accompany him to KMCH? “I need my Manager’s permission” – Unbelievable, we thought. Bureaucracy, when you least expect it. We donate liberally to you, we reminded them. Please call your manager. “He’s unreachable, sorry”.

“Did you find someone, madam?” asked the inspector, not unkindly. Please give us some time, we requested humbly. He agreed & busied himself with what inspectors do, he caught a bunch of traffic violators & wrote them tickets. “Please don’t mistake me madam” he said. “My workload is heavy & I don’t even have constables assisting me. I can’t accompany this man in the ambulance. But if you find someone that can take charge of him..”.

Let’s try “The Banyan”, we decided. Their primary goal is to help women, but certainly they won’t leave a schizophrenic lying on the streets near a cesspool. “We’re sorry, today is a holiday, so you have to call our volunteer” we were told. We called the volunteer.

“A man!” he said reproachfully. “Sorry sir, we only serve women”. But this man needs their help, we implored. Please, you don’t have to do anything, will you accompany him to the hospital? “We are full, we can’t help him”. We were stumped. Is there some other organization that he could recommend, that might help this man? “Well sir, had this been a woman, I could have given you 3 or 4 other numbers”.

This was new, we thought bitterly. Discrimination against men. The volunteer thawed slightly. “Well, since you’re persistent, please try Mahabodhi. They help old people”. The man wasn’t old. Our hearts fell into our stomach. But we still called Mahabodhi. The line was dead.

“Well, sir?” asked the inspector. “I’ve been waiting for 30 minutes. Did you find someone?”. My husband looked at me. “I’ll go with him” he said. “What? You in a disease-ridden ambulance with him?” I balked. Involuntarily, we looked at him. His whole body was jerking spasmodically. He was having a seizure.

That settled it for me. “Both of us will accompany him, Inspector” I said. “We’ll follow the ambulance”. The inspector looked a little taken aback. He was probably not expecting this response. “You look like decent people” he said. “Do you know what accompanying him means? If he runs away from the hospital or needs any kind of attention, you’ll be the 1st point of contact”. We looked at each other & our faces fell. We’ll become his guardians? We were not prepared for that. He was a stranger, he could be dangerous.

“Please don’t think ill of me, its not that I don’t want to help him” said the inspector, sensing our dismay. “You see, all this is new to you. I see much sadness & depravity everyday that I’m benumbed” he said uncomfortably. We couldn’t speak, we just nodded our heads. Meeting the inspector had been the best part of the ordeal.

“Say” said the inspector. “I’m positive this guy does drugs. He’s not ill at all, he’s on a high now. in another hour, he’ll be fine” he said. We think he made that up to make us & himself feel better. “Spend your time with your family, don’t waste your weekend with drug-dealing scum”.

As we turned to leave, thanking the inspector for his help, he said simply – “Please don’t think I’m heartless. I did my best”. We stammered our thanks & assured him that we didn’t think badly of him. After all, the Police Department had gone above & beyond their call of duty, while the others were no-shows.

The man lay on the pavement in the twilight, twitching slightly.


  1. Quote

    I think Mother Teresa’s Little Sisters of the Poor cares for people like him.

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