That said, and before I go on, I would like to make it clear that the following is not about me – it is about him. Here is what happened.
About 6:15pm with the temperature dipping below 20C and darkness settling in I set out for a short walk with my dog, Fred. I was in a hurry, hoping that I could go back and see the last of the cricket action on Day 4 of the 4th test v England at the Wankhede (I like to watch only when India is winning).
When I had walked about 20 meters out of my compound, I saw a person slumped in a sitting position by a lamppost on the pavement across the road. Just then, he slowly stood up, shuffled to about a foot from the edge of the pavement, then without really caring as to what was happening stepped on to the road in front of an oncoming taxi that braked, swerved, missed him and carried on. The man froze. Given that this was on the bend (just outside the entrance to 25, Sha Wan Drive) I thought traffic coming up the hill may not see him in time when he was on my side of the road, so I rushed towards him (thinking he was suicidal) and shepherded him to my side of the road.
I tried to speak to him but could not understand him at all given I did not know his language. He also did not know any Cantonese so the few words that I know in that language were useless. He was dressed in two shirts and a pant and very poorly and wore bare sports shoes. He was calm but obviously exhausted and weak and I noticed that he looked me in the eye when I addressed him or when he tried to speak. I asked if he was Ok and he indicated that he was. I then waited and he entered 25 Sha Wan Drive and then again just stopped in the middle of the entrance road about 4 or 5 meters into the compound. I ran towards him still unsure if he was suicidal. Perhaps it was because it was a Sunday evening there was no one else on the road and this made me desperate because I really wanted to communicate with this man and ask him how I could help.
I escorted him to the corner of the entrance to 25 Sha Wan Drive and tried to ask him again. He put his two palms together and by the side of his head as he tilted it. I took that to mean that he wanted a place to sleep. So I tried to tell him that he could go into 23 Sha Wan Drive (where I live) and thinking I could show him a place in the underground car park where he could sleep at least for a few hours before the guards found him. He indicated “no”. I then showed him a tiny gate (it is near Block 1 of 23 SWD), opened it and stepped in to show him “the secret” entrance. He said “no”.
He also indicated, “thank you”.
That shook me to the core. Here was a guy, who was not drunk, clearly exhausted, possibly starving, but polite and courteous – and there I was, helpless in my ability to comfort him in some way, thinking my dog Fred had a better life than a human, and that I could walk to the comfort of my home in just a few steps while this man had nothing. This caused an angry rage in me and I had to fight back my tears of anger at the situation the old man was in.
I know this sounds like an extreme reaction on my part. Especially considering that I have lived in countries where I have seen extreme poverty and watched on television news the horrors inflicted on people. Perhaps it was anger that had welled up in me because of the injustices that I had seen. Perhaps it was because it was just me, the old man and Fred on the road and that made the situation very personal.
As he walked down the road towards 23 Sha Wan Drive, I waited a bit, then overtook him and went into 23 Sha Wan Drive and waited to see what the old man would do. He just ambled past the entrance and continued down the hill – or so I thought.
Angry now with myself for not doing more for him, I went up to the flat and (with my wife on a business trip and my helper off for the day I was alone) started looking for something that I could give the man. I grabbed a sweater, a jumper, and 3 energy bars and rushed back down with Fred. As I exited the building I saw a helper returning from a day off and asked if she had seen an old man in a white shirt. She said: “yes, he his walking up the hill”. I was sure that had to be wrong and asked again and she was sure and added: “he cannot be far”.
I ran out and sure enough, he was on the other side of the road, not 15 or 20 meters from where I first saw him. I went up to him and stopped him and there was instant recognition (leading me to believe that he had his memory working and was not lost). I offered him the clothes and he pinched his shirt (to indicate he had one) and said “no”!! I then offered him the 3 energy bars – and he took 1. ONE. In that instant I thought of the many that I know, who despite having so much, want more and are greedy or stingy and wondered at this exhausted man who gingerly took just one of the 3 energy bars.
I then reached across and put the other two energy bars into his shirt pocket. I asked him again to please take the sweater and the jumper and he politely refused but pinched his pants (this time the expression indicated he may need pants). Thinking that perhaps he needed a change of pants I indicated he should sit down, pointed to my building, and that I would go and return quickly with something while he waited. He again politely declined and indicated thanks by slightly cupping his right hand and pointing his palm at me while slowly moving it up and down a few times.
I looked around, saw the road was still empty and realised that I may not be able to help the man more. In hindsight I should perhaps have called the police.
If you asked me to pick him out of a line up of elderly Chinese men I would possibly not be able to do it. But I was able to recognise in him a polite and good man, who was dignified and not greedy. I only wish that when his end comes, it comes quickly and painlessly, and that his last memory before his breath leaves him is a happy one.