His kick was particularly brutal this morning.
In that bitter cold dawn, the pain reverberated throughout my starved body.
'Get up and get going!' The cop sneered and walked away on his beat.
'Yes sir...' I managed to mutter.
The streets are a smart teacher, I had soon learnt that for a homeless vagrant, ego and morality were unaffordable luxuries. Another quick lesson was to avoid looking in the mirrors, lest the starkness of bitter reality overwhelms you.
To subsist, one had to shed the burden of feelings, and to complain was uselessly immaterial. People didn't see you as a fellow human being. You did not exist.
Existing, meant passing through each day as it came, and hoping that life itself didn't forsake you when the dark casing of the night encircled you. However, grumbling didn't count, so I grumbled as I rose to my feet.
I didn't have to look around for something that I might have left behind. Not being burdened with possessions was very helpful.
You don't fear losing what you never had.
But I still had my body, and my abdomen ached. As I limped towards the kitchen that served free hot soups in the mornings, it was difficult to tell if it was the hunger pangs, or that kick, which hurt more.
The owner of the soup shop had once been homeless like us, and didn't forget the streets when times changed for him. But times certainly did change for the rest of us too. None of us were born homeless, none of us were born vagrants.
Yes, there were times when times changed.
Sitting on the hard bench, I felt the heated vapours rise from my cup and disappear into cold air. Like me, the person sitting by my side had cupped her hands around the bowl to absorb some heat into the body.
We called her 'Aunt' but that had nothing to do with age. For, age was another milestone that didn't matter on the streets.
She dug into her trench coat, took out a neatly folded newspaper containing pieces of bread, and without looking at me, slid one in my direction.
Another day had begun.
The bustling street was such a contrast from the cold, lonely daybreak a while ago. Morning felt warmer even when the temperatures hadn't risen much. It seems the mere presence of people made the difference.
The icy coldness of the pavement gradually ebbed out of my bones and I began to feel the heat of life seep back in. I wondered if anyone noticed the change.
With the cover of darkness gone, the ominous juveniles vanished too. They would stalk the nightspots to peddle drugs, or unleash their violence against those who sought indulgences in the obscurity of the nights; a case of twisted logic, where the prowlers feasted upon the predators.
With the daylight, began the trickling-in of another set of street people.
These weren't one of us, never had been. We called them the Day Boarders.
They would stream in at daylight, from places unknown, and vanish before darkness set in. Some plied as pickpockets or beggars, others had surreptitious scams. And then there were the odd musicians whose dreams of basking in glorified success had long been shattered.
Unlike us, they all took to the streets for a living, and not for survival.
Pretending to be oblivious of the surroundings, their eyes would furtively dart around the faces of those close and far.
Scanning feverishly for possible victims, or potential threats.
That's what gave them away. Because, for us, the need to look around was no longer a necessity; we could feel the people and the places without the glance.
Once in a while you could glimpse the lonely presence of the day-boarders at night, holding half-empty bottles or wearing that dazed drugged look. Unwittingly offering themselves as an easy target for the juvenile gangs to prey upon.
The hunters, hunted down.
As the morning rush began to grow, we receded once again to the side alleys because crowd was something to be avoided.
This was another trait that set us apart from the day-boarders; being out of sight worked for us. People tend to clean up the visible mess, not the dust that gathers under the rugs. And we were that hidden dirt whose existence was best not acknowledged. Survival meant sustaining ourselves through the leftovers of those higher up in the food chain, not interacting with them.
We had learnt this trick from the stray dogs and sewer rats.
Nature is a great teacher.
She rose late in the day but chose to stay in bed for a while longer.
Last night had been an entertaining experience. One of her friends had married yet again in a very private ceremony. It amused her to reflect that while marriages were meant to legitimize the offspring, once you had the heirs, why carry the burden of morality?
But then, this friend was the daughter of an enterprising businessman who made his serious money in real estate. She knew it would be at least another generation, provided they could hold on to their fortune and fame, before the residual traces of having been a bourgeois will wear off.
Within their select group, they all called each other by first names, and using the Sir Name meant a reminder of distance, not a token of respect.
Unlike the nouveau riche, or the wanna-be, their need for privacy governed their social interaction.
It's not that they weren't invited, it's just that they only graced by choice.
She finally rose and went to the bathroom.
While passing though the mirrored walk-in closets, she glimpsed at her image and paused a moment at the reflection of her self-assured looks.
In that privileged lifestyle, she has learnt to wear a polite smile all the time, and adapted her eyes to mask her indifference by wearing an inquisitively caring look.
Absently, she twisted her face in a circular motion to see if her glowing skin had developed any signs of eminent wrinkles. Not that aging mattered; it's just that she'd have to call her cosmetic surgeon for a private visit.
Her breakfast was light.
The silver tray carried a goblet of fresh juice, and a while later, a cup of coffee and a piece of toasted bran bread was served.
She ate light so that the body remained in shape.
Her personal secretary, somehow called the Chief of Staff, asked about the desired schedules for the day, and politely reminded her about the commitments she had previously confirmed.
She had to contend with these issues each day because it was important to define the agenda. Her travel routes for the day had to be deliberated in advance. She no longer had the option of making spur-of-the-moment decisions about stoppages. Mingling with public was avoided and being caught in a crowd was a qualified risk.
The security personnel scouted her routes and anonymous looking vehicles with burly occupants clattered on their communications network along her movement.
Planning mattered, and implementation ensured, through self-discipline.
Her cousin had himself been a casualty. He left the house one day without any information and has not been found since. The extraordinary thing was that there had been no ransom demand, and even his body wasn't found. It was as if he vanished into thin air. Her parents didn't have to contend with all these uncertainties, such insecurities. Yes, times had changed.
Having spent months on the street, I thought it was time to leave.
It had been a sobering experience and I felt I finally understood what it took to survive out there.
I wondered how my family would respond on seeing me. Would they be genuinely happy to see me again, or dismayed at losing my share of the family fortune?
I knew that in my current state, the security detail would never allow me into the street, much less near the gates of the residence, so I felt my pockets for the coins that I had saved to make that call to my cousin.
I pondered how she would react?
Would I be able to reconcile to all this when I get back to my lot? Life was so insulated where I came from, the apex blind spot of humanity. A silk-wrapped cocoon that permitted the movement but denied even a look beyond.
And, out in the streets, I had now also penetrated the hard shell of the egg, which captivated the life within, in suffocating poverty.
Yes, I had crossed the thresholds of awareness, and that of experience itself.
Had I, in the process, become that bridge between the two worlds so oblivious of each other’s presence? My mind wondered.
How will I change anything? Should I? Will I? Could I?
But before leaving, I needed to inform Aunt. She had been kind to me and had usually saved a morsel or two for me to share.
I think I would always fondly remember how she took out pieces of bread from her neatly folded newspaper. Maybe I should ask her why she always folded the same paper again and tucked it back in her pocket.
She was sitting on a bench behind the public lavatories.
We had shared the spot so many times, sitting together but not really communicating. It was always me who asked the questions and her replies would be in nods or grunts.
I sat besides her and told her everything.
She listened the way she always did, her eyes never looking at mine.
I told her how, when I get back, I would make sure that the soup kitchen had enough money to make it more filling, and that they would serve bread too.
When I finished, she quietly took out that folded newspaper and I knew there would be a piece of bread for me, her parting gift as our last meal together.
But this time she pressed the newspaper itself into my palm.
I looked down and saw that it was the paper from the day I had left the residence. My picture was prominently placed on the front page with the headline news.
Looking at the treeline, she rose to leave, 'Always knew you were a day-boarder'.
And left me behind.