It has been a couple of years since Ravi died. I think of him often these days, as Covid -19 continues to topple systems and populations all over the world.
I met him soon after we shifted to that corner house in Jangpura, a colony of Sikhs and Punjabis who came to Delhi after Partition and got land at cheap rates to build houses in the area. The original name of the place was Youngpura*, after one British Colonel Young who had a role to play in the resettlement of refugees.
While Jungpura itself is a middle-class colony, close to Lutyen’s Delhi and full of journalists and lawyers, some pockets are less than gentrified. The block we moved to was perhaps the least gentrified. Right behind us was the slum everyone called Madrasi Camp – after the south Indian migrant labourers who lived there. The women worked in the homes of the colony while the men ran the illegal bootlegging operations, with full knowledge and tacit encouragement of the police.
The availability of 24/7 alcohol drew drunkards in droves. They visited all night, often starting brawls, or making a ruckus. The police came only to restore peace, never to shut the booze black market down. The revenues amounted to thousands of dollars, I heard.
Ravi was a regular fixture in this Bacchanalian setting – staying put day and night. He slept on the pavement lining the street which divided the colony from the slums. He made a little money from procuring booze for those who came in the swanky cars at night, and either due to the stink or fear of cops chose to stay in the car while a rickshaw-puller or Ravi got them their fix.
Ravi had a home in the colony adjacent to Jangpura called Bhogal with its big market and Afghanis, and Iranis. He had family living there– father and two brothers with their wives. Ravi did not get along with them and had chosen the life of the street, after the death of his mother. Or you could say the family had turned him out as he was the black sheep. Once upon a time, he worked as a DJ – playing music for wedding functions and birthday parties. But now he just drank and whiled his time away, playing cards, occasionally smoking pot, and perhaps running lines of smack – a local variant of heroin – at times. He hardly ate and changed his clothes rarely, which hung listlessly on his emaciated body for days on end.
I was initially wary of him as I had pegged him as a hardcore heroin junkie. But slowly, I realised that Ravi was a gentleman at heart. I would give him money occasionally, knowing he would blow most of it on booze. In exchange, he would bring me cigarettes at times when I could not go out myself, either taking care of the young child or working on something.
Sick of the frequent brawls at nights, and the commotion with loud swearing and cursing that ensued regularly, we were already thinking to move. Our young son was growing up and we were not keen to bring him up in that atmosphere.
One night, there was a knock on the door late at night. I opened to see Ravi standing outside. He asked for money for food. I gave Ravi what I had. As usual, he said nothing about the amount. He took it and left.
Next morning, when I came down from my first-floor apartment to get some groceries, I saw Ravi lying on his back on the pavement, next to the raised rectangular concrete slab on which the block’s washerman Hari Om ironed clothes. I approached him to take a closer look as I had never seen him in such a state before.
I was shocked to see him from up close. Although Ravi was a drunkard, this was not his style. Unlike other drunkards, he was never seen passed out on streets. I also saw that his eyes were rolling upwards in their sockets, while foam was collecting on the corners of his mouth.
I tried to wake him up but it was of no use. I got some water from home and tried to make him drink but he was unable to swallow it.
I saw someone who used to hang out with Ravi – I asked him what the matter was. He seemed unconcerned – “He drank too much. Let him sleep it off, he will be fine.” Although I was not convinced, I did not know what else to do. I asked around if anyone knew where Ravi’s family lived in Bhogal. A rickshaw-puller said he did. I gave him some money and asked him to go and inform his family. I also had an appointment to keep, so I went my way, hoping Ravi would be back in his senses soon.
When I returned in the afternoon, I saw Ravi still lying there.
The block’s washer-man Hari Om and his elderly father had started the work for the day. I asked them what we should do. Hari Om did not say anything much except that Ravi was a habitual drunk and would be fine by evening. But his father was less charitable. “It is better if he dies,” he said with a smirk. “He is a burden on the world.”
I suddenly realised that no one else felt sympathetic for Ravi.
It was 3 pm already. I would later find out that the rickshaw-puller whom I had asked to inform Ravi’s family had gotten drunk on the way and never made it.
I decided to visit his house. It took a little asking around but I managed to locate it. His father, also a drunkard, stood outside, unsteady from the booze. He either did not seem to follow what I was saying or chose not to care. I decided to enter the house. His brothers were away on work. I informed one of his sisters-in-law that Ravi was dying on the pavement and that they needed to do something.
Back to the spot again, I decided to take him to the hospital in my car but those who were around, including Hari Om, told me if he died on the way or in the hospital, his family might blame me and the police might also harass me.
Running out of options fast, and confused, I finally called an ambulance.
When the ambulance driver said they were on their way, I felt a bit relieved. I had an errand to run and decided to take care of it.
When I returned, a small crowd had assembled. I made my way through it and saw the driver of the ambulance whom I recognised due to his uniform standing, perplexed.
“He is dead. You will need to call someone else to take the body to the mortuary,” he said, flatly.
Shocked at Ravi’s demise, and the driver’s lack of humanity, I burst out. I had also noticed his sister-in-law standing near the corpse by now, keeping quiet.
The driver seemed a bit chastened after I scolded him and agreed to take the body to the morgue. As they drove off, the crowd also dwindled.
I stood there for a while, guilt gnawing at my conscience for failing to save his life.
Suddenly, I saw a man on a scooter come by and look around. I immediately understood that this was one of the brothers. In grief, I shouted at him for coming so late and this made him leave almost immediately.
There was nothing else I could do, I realised. So, I went home too.
When the lockdown started in March this year in India, the memory returned. Now we do not live there anymore; it has been a couple of years since we left, not long after Ravi’s death.
I am convinced Ravi would not have made it through the lockdown. He had no means to survive through it. In a way, it is good he is gone.
Rest in Peace, old friend.
*The story behind Youngpura’s name was dug up by Aletta Andre while writing her pieces on the colony and its inhabitants/characters for the Dutch newspaper Trouw.
Abhimanyu Kumar is a New Delhi based journalist who also dabbles in poetry, music and performance art related activities. He taught at a university earlier this year and lives in New Delhi with his wife, son and cat Huncke.