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Facing Mecca

Words and Illustrations by Chris van Ryn

Bombay, India

At full tide the causeway will be submerged, overwhelmed not only by the rising water but by floating debris: drink cartons, rusty tins, broken toys, a torn shoe, plastic bags filled with rotting food, a dead animal, all collected and held captive in pockets along the causeway by the incessant motion of the sea. Sleek black crows will tease away at the plastic bags to pick at the rotting food. At low tide, the sea bed is a cesspit, home to scuttling, beady eyed rats. When the warm wind blows the stench is overpowering.

At the end of this long snaking causeway reaching 100 metres out to sea is a man-made square-shaped island upon which stands the Haji Ali Mosque. It was on this causeway that I had a life changing experience.

mecca 1

It is the middle of the day. Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead and down the back of my neck. My shirt has an ever-expanding damp patch. I am thirsty.

The 30 metres leading to the causeway are flanked by small, tightly packed makeshift stalls where the vendors sell with an air of urgency. As a foreigner, I am prime pickings.

“Look see, sir.” A book is thrust in my face by someone at my elbow. The man at the end of it holds another in his spare hand, a stack trapped under each arm.

A young man in dark glasses intercepts me. “Hello, sir. Looking for something? Hash? Brown Charlie? Coffee shop? Amsterdam coffee shop?”

Same questions. Different hustlers. I side-step my way through.

At the end of the stalls another sight awaits me. On either side of the causeway, all the way to the mosque, a staggering assortment of broken humanity unfolds. Like a freak circus sideshow, beggars litter the sides, forming a human balustrade.

The first beggar on my right hoists himself up. Extended to his full height, his beseeching face is level with my waist. A filthy length of fabric is worn as a turban and he wears an oversize, grubby singlet and even dirtier trousers, the cuffs rolled up to make shorts. Both legs are severed above the knees. A stainless steel dish seeks a few pieces of silver.

He stands on his stumps, which are covered in dirty white, pus-caked bandages. I cringe at the thought of his full weight bearing down upon his stumps. As I pass by he exacerbates his pain. Like a wind-up toy he hops from stump to stump in a pitiful dance.

Further on I encounter a group of eight or nine amputees lying in a circle, head to toe, directly on the tarmac. One is missing an arm from just below the elbow, reminiscent of a truncated hockey stick wrapped in a bandage. Another has lost both arms close to the shoulder. Others are legless, their stumps covered in pus-stained bandages, showing the occasional seepage of blood. They all wear a similar ‘uniform’ - a white gown and skull cap. Theirs is a commercial co-operative with proceeds shared amongst them. They chant: “Paisa, paisa, paisa, paisa, paisa…” the Hindi word for money, all the while wobbling their stumps, trembling like captive birds. The performance is mesmerising.

These are broken and damaged members of society: cast out, pushed out, left out. But they are actors too - professionals carrying out their tragic performance with all the vigour they can muster. They play on the strings of pity, their audience - tourists and the religious faithful.

I come across a mound of blankets reeking with a pungent odour. Although this smell is unfamiliar to me, I know it instantly - it is the smell of death.

The blankets shift. I recoil. Dark animal eyes stare into mine, eyes ablaze with madness, eyes that are no longer the conduit of the human soul.

Under the blankets is an emaciated woman, naked and dirt smeared. Her dark hair is long and matted. From a gaping mouth saliva runs in long wet threads. Her distended breasts lie against her torso. And from between her legs squirts a pungent yellowish liquid which runs over her thighs.

For what seems like a long time I stand there, immobilised. She is all the suffering people in the world. Suffering every 60 seconds of every minute, every 60 minutes of every hour.

It is Friday and hordes of Muslims shuffle the length of the causeway towards the mosque. I watch the shifting crowd. Their eyes keep resolutely to the centre of the path. They walk casually, talking amongst themselves, the men in pristine white robes, the women in their hijabs or burqas.

They are heading to the mosque to face Mecca. The pitiful pantomime plays out around them. There are few who turn to face the beggars.

 

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