Tales of the wretched
Ashok and his mother – Chapter 1: The night at the shelter
4 July 2015
Ashok lifted his head from his plate and looked at the woman sitting on the chair at the opposite side of the shelter. She had the silent sullen look of those who are used to fate giving them blow after blow and her whole body carried itself hunched, ready for the oncoming onslaught. She was a stocky large-faced woman with features which did not allow you to guess whether she had been beautiful or not, so bloated they were from the drinking and difficult life she must have lead. She was seated, hunched on a corner of the chair as if she were afraid to occupy more of it and perhaps be blamed for taking too much space. He had noticed how most of the people who came here for food seemed to carry that apologetic stance about them, as if they were readily acknowledging in advance that they ought to be sorry for the misery that brought them to this point of having to get food donated to them. He winced as somehow it brought back memories of someone closer to him, so much closer that he had once fell asleep feeling safe and comforted on her bosom.
Ashok shook off the bittersweet memories and tried to concentrate on his plate. The food was not a luxury meal but it was still good and its heat warmed his belly and made him feel ready to tackle the biting cold outside. He forked out a piece of the meat that sat on a corner of his plate and proceeded to cut it into bits so that he could swallow them slowly with his soup together with the bread that he had broken into pieces before. Today, the cook who was a Tunisian called Ammar, had cooked a favourite Tunisian dish for those who needed some energy and a remedy against the cold and it was called Leblaby. It mainly consisted of a very spicy chickpea soup into which some egg was added, sometimes with meat too and which you were supposed to eat by breaking pieces of bread in it and swallowing it all like a soup while it was still very hot. Ammar and the Canadian apprentice Andrew had joked a lot with Ashok about the fact that this dish was really going to give a jolt to those among the shelter visitors who were not used to eating spicy food but that he could handle it as he too came from a culture that enjoyed spicy food. Ashok had laughed with them absent-mindedly not really getting why it was a joke if these poor people coming for food would not be able to handle the spice. He knew, however, that Ammar meant no real malice as he had volunteered, as Ashok had done, to work in the shelter and came regularly day after day at the end of his shift to prepare the food for the night at the shelter.
Ashok felt again that gnawing at his heart and the longing for the comfort and safety he had lost as his mind strayed again into thoughts of the past. He tried to remember how she had looked before but it was always the mask she wore at death that came to his mind. It seemed like he could never remember her again the way she had been. People had told him that she had been a beautiful woman and many had attempted to console him but he had pulled away from them. He could not understand how there were so many people at her funeral but none had come earlier so that this could be prevented. His heart had hardened then as he had thought to himself that these hands that were reaching out for him in an attempt to console him were like claws of vultures attempting a show of affection while they had only circled above while she was all set to die. He had not wanted to give them the pleasure of feeling or perhaps of pretending in front of others that they had achieved something good by consoling him, the little matchstick boy as some of the boys in the neighbourhood called him. He had thus broken away from their grabbing hands and stood, a pitiful sight in his trousers that were at least two sizes too big for him, his painfully thin hands tucked into his hollow chest and his wobbling ungainly legs attempting to stay stiff and solid on the ground as his whole body quaked with sobs. People had looked at him with real pity then but all he could feel was the anger at their lack of reaction earlier and nothing they could have said could have possibly consoled him then.
It was then that he had first felt the pangs of hatred he recalled, that he had vowed to take revenge on every person who had somehow been responsible for her state as she lay there in front of him. He had repeated to himself the words he had heard “She was such a beautiful woman. How come she allowed herself to sink this far” and they had become like a mantra that he repeated to himself every time he felt weak and incapable of doing what he had vowed to do. His frail body then was incapable of doing anything else than growing and he had focused mainly on that first although he did not neglect his studies. Despite the number of people who had attended the funeral, nobody had come forward to become his legal guardian but he was lucky as the orphanage where he had been placed by the State was one of the rare good ones and he was treated decently if not with some kindness on occasion. He had studied hard and succeeded in life but he had never once given up his night job of working in shelters that distributed food to the homeless. He wondered whether this had contributed to his failed marriage but did not even dwell upon the thought as nothing in his marriage had felt right anyway, despite his initial lust for his wife, which he had mistakenly taken for love.
The woman moved a bit and looked around with shifty eyes and he realised she was probably about to do what many of the homeless do, while thinking they are actually not entitled to it. Most of them would do it in a more discreet way but this woman seemed to have a sense of urgency about her. She looked around again and not noticing his gaze as he was looking at her through semi-closed eyes, pretending to be dozing, she quickly tucked in her bra a couple of bread rolls. He chuckled inward despite the incongruous situation thinking that had it not been soup but steak as they served on rare occasions she would probably have tried to hide some of those too. He opened wide his eyes, staring straight at her intensely and like a hunted animal she felt his gaze and looked back at him with widening eyes. She seemed to quickly try to assess whether he had noticed her stealing the loafs and judged otherwise as he did not seem to be angry but her stance changed to an even less comfortable one when he rose and started walking towards her.
As he came up to her side she winced and started getting ready to offload her breast area of their load but he put a hand on her rough hand and stopped her. In a deliberately quiet and low voice he told her to keep them. He said it was not against the rules to take bread away as long as it was not too much. The shelter privileged giving food to those who made the effort of coming all the way but if some extra food was needed by the person who had come there was nothing against keeping a bit for later or perhaps, he said gazing at her intensely, for someone else. As their eyes locked while he said this, something passed in between them and the stocky hardened woman started to sob. Ashok kept his hand on her shoulder as she sobbed and pressed her to collect herself together so that Ammar’s apprentice would not come to the table and find out why she was crying. Neither Ammar nor Ashok bothered when people took away food with them as they knew it must be direly needed but the young boy Andrew was very tight on the rules and would have reported her. Ashok thought to himself that unlike Ammar or himself, the boy certainly had never known hardship as he came from a normal Canadian family and had been sent by his mother – a devout catholic – to the shelter to work. The woman sniffed and then stayed huddled attempting to quiet her sobs and eventually they ceased so he went back to his seat to regain his own composure and watched as she slowly edged towards the shelter exit and then disappeared into the night.
Ashok gazed at the gaping door that was slowly shutting behind her. He wanted to follow her but what had passed between them in that gaze had left him weak and he had been that wobbly thin boy again looking up into his mother’s eyes as she pleaded with people passing to buy her embroidered tablecloths. By the time he had been able to still his beating heart, she had been out of the door and out of the shelter. He looked past the door, staring emptily, trying to recollect images of the times before when they had both been happy. Slowly, like a man in a dream, he walked towards the window to try and get a glimpse of the woman as she left the shelter. Outside, a line of people were still queueing up for the food at the shelter and the cars on the street were still abuzz. He opened the window partially to see better and rested his throbbing head against the cool surface of the window pane as he breathed in the chill of the night and it filled his lungs and his heart with its iciness. Warm tears rolled down his cheeks as he caught a glimpse of the stocky hunched woman making her way through the stream of people, her precious load of food snuck closely to her heart and he whimpered out loud “Mother!”