The Mystery on the Corner of Park Avenue

Have you ever been plunged into Mystery?

I mean plunged.  Fully immersed, dunked completely, instantly, like on those game shows where the contestant is sitting on a board over a pool, and if they get the trivia question wrong the chair drops out from under them and in they go.

Let me tell you what happened the last time I was plunged into Mystery.

It was in India.  Kolkata, specifically, on Park Street, that avenue of the rich and famous that connects with the train station and leads to AJ Bose road.  Just a twenty minute walk away from Victoria Monument and a short bit further to Esplanade.  Even more specifically, it was on the corner before Oxford bookstore where I would like to step outside of the chaos of Kolkata and enter a familiar world: books, air conditioning, English, and coffee.  (Was this selfish?  Surely.  Cowardly?  Probably.  Necessary?  Absolutely. )

This particular afternoon, I was approaching Oxford bookstore, but not to stop in.  I was on my way to the Park Street train station and eventually to Kalighat, the Home for the Destitute and Dying where I spent my afternoons while in the city.  (More about my morning experiences volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity can be read about by visiting this post here.)


This particular afternoon, I was stepping across a driveway, feeling somewhat more confident by now at navigating my way down Park Street.  I’d started choosing this way to the train station because it was shorter and more direct than the other routes I’d experimented with.  It was a wide six-lane thoroughfare with sidewalks, restaurants with outdoor patio seating, and even chain stores including a McDonald’s (and no, I hadn’t been in there yet, I wasn’t THAT desperate).  I’d also grown to enjoy seeing several by-now familiar people along the way, beggars who often greeted me and even a few store owners I’d gotten to chat with.  It was nice to feel like I had a routine along this way and that others recognized it.

This particular afternoon, as I stepped behind a vehicle that was careening its way through the pedestrians in the driveway, I stepped up onto the corner before Oxford Books and saw one of the beggars at his familiar spot.

And that’s when the seat when out from under me, and I was plunged into the depths of Mystery.

Now.  I’d already seen this man a few times.  He was a bit older, with big eyes, big glasses, and a big forehead.  He wore Gandhi glasses, the kind that make you look one of two ways: either perpetually startled or perpetually open to the secrets of the world.  It all depends on how you wanted to view it.  The top of this gentleman’s head was round, exposed to the indescribable Kolkata heat, and he was as thin as the magazines that sat in the vendor’s rack next to him.

He had no hands, or feet.

His hands, or rather the lack of them, are what first drew my attention over a week ago when I started walking Park Street.  This man’s wrists were so thin and mangled I wasn’t sure how the bones fit inside–except I could clearly see them.  His wrists ended at the space between the radius and the ulna, and they followed the soft M shape of the radius.   He managed to grip a cup for change in this small indentation.  This he held up to passersby, but not shaking or rattling or thrusting it out, just simply extending it up, his thin bicep looking barely strong enough to support his effort.  His eyes, those eyes, held all the energy in his body.  The eyeglasses he wore amplified his big, soft gaze that took in each of the passersby.

Perhaps it was for this reason that I started trekking up Park Street every day, to see this man.  I passed him every afternoon, and smiled at him.  One afternoon, maybe three days ago, I didn’t see him at his spot by the magazine rack.  I asked the vendor what had happened, and he explained that this beggar did have a family, a wife and kids, and that he managed to work his way to their place to be with them in the afternoons.  Usually, as the magazine vendor explained, he’d scoot on a piece of cardboard to do so.

The following day, I saw him again and dropped change in his cup.  I didn’t know what else to do, but I had to do something.  This man was supporting himself and a family.  Three kids, as it turned out.  They lived across the nearby park, a good twenty minute walk for me.  This must have translated into an incalculably difficult journey for this particular man.

Then, this particular afternoon happened.  As I stepped up onto the corner, our eyes met again, as they’d done on previous afternoon.  This time, he smiled.

That’s when everything around and in me stopped.  Time.  My breath.  The noise of the street and all its traffic.  The people around me.  My heart, my hands, my feet, the sweat on my face.  It all froze, completely, entirely.

I could never describe that smile.  I could never explain it.  I could never wrap my mind or my words around it.

This smile!

This smile made no sense.

This was Mystery.  Pure, radiant, glowing Mystery.

This man had no hands, no arms, no legs, and as I later found out from the magazine vendor, no voice either.  He had no money except for what was collected in his little cup.  He had one shirt, a dozen holes in it, and no shoes.  He had no hat, no umbrella, no cardboard to protect himself from the heat.  If he did manage to find cardboard, it was for his transportation.

I couldn’t understand this smile.  He had so little!  He had so, so little, yet he had this smile. 

And this smile did not just light up his face or sparkle in his eyes.  No, none of that tired cliché business for this Mystery smile.  This smile changed my friend entirely. 

This smile lit up his whole body.  It transformed him.  This smile was a complete man, whole, alive, glowing, healed and healing others.  This new man had both of his arms and enough to eat, and he didn’t have to get around on a broken-down cardboard box.  This smile could only come from a man who was proud to be able to provide for his family.  This smile was the smile of someone endlessly in love with his wife, for whom everything was working out because he had love, he had things right and so the universe, God, Mystery was working in his favor.

I wish nothing more than to know the story behind this smile.  Where did it possibly originate?  What happened to set it into motion, to grow, to blossom?  What kind of soil is it rooted in, to make it so beautiful?

As I stood there in front of this beggar, plunged into this Mystery, I could do nothing but remain still because of course I instantly knew I’d never have all those answers.  I must have smiled back, of course, but how could my smile have ever compared to his?

Six months later, here I am and I am still blown away by this smile.

In the face of all the man’s sufferings, all that he apparently lacked, I still don’t have the story.  I couldn’t have gotten the story, anyway, couldn’t have interviewed him for the source, because the man could not have shared it with me.

And now I am far, far away from this man, this Gandhi look-alike.  Yet he is still inside of me, smiling, and every time I think of that smile, I know it is Mystery in him smiling.  It is Mystery, it is pure Light shining out of that smile.  For a moment that afternoon, Mystery smiled at me.  Right there, in the midst of the Kolkata craziness that also makes no sense, right there when I was about to walk right by, Mystery smiled out at the world, at me.  And it stopped me, it took me for a dive, and I am forever changed.

I know that this smile will never die inside of me.  I don’t know the smile’s beginning, but I know it has no end.  And for that?  For that I am so grateful, because I know I can smile and by that, hopefully continue to help the Mystery grow.  Hopefully now whenever I smile, I am helping to make that Light a little brighter.

My friend, wherever you are now, I hope you are still smiling.  The world needs you.

And, wherever you are now, my friendly reader, I hope you are smiling too.

The world needs you.

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