There is an unlikely sounding road name in central New Delhi, it is the Chelmsford Road. Obviously named by the British, it connects Connaught Place with Paharganj. Chelmsford Road lies parallel to one side of the massive New Delhi train station. One afternoon in 2007 I was walking back to my guest house along this road when I came across a man who was lying half with his legs in the road and half with the upper part of his body on the pavement. Close by was a street vendor who was selling whole peeled cucumbers.
I looked in the direction of the street vendor for a short time and I wondered if he would help me to pull the mans legs from the road. The man was barely moving. The traffic on the road was heavy and a bus that was ‘hanging’ full of passengers missed his feet by inches. I looked towards to the street vendor, wondering again if he might help. He raised his eye brows towards me, in a typical, ‘what to do?’ kind of way.
The man in the road was quite obviously one of the homeless drug addicts who use the cover of the massive concrete road bridge that passes over the train station where the destitute smoke their cheep heroin. I made a decision to try to help him and I walked over and lent over his face to try to get his attention and maybe pull him away from road.
When I caught sight of the right side of his head I pulled my face away from his and I took one step backwards from him. I could not believe what I had just seen, his eye was missing and there was a nothing where his right eye socket and temple should be, there was a hole in his head. I had looked directly inside his skull; his brain was in a state of decay it was crawling with maggots.
His head turned very slightly towards me as I bent over him, I was sure that he had sensed my presence as I briefly stood over him. I stepped back and I looked over towards the man who was selling cucumbers, this time the vendor did not return my gaze. Apart from the traffic there were no other pedestrians; I was standing close to this pathetic dying individual. The thought crossed my mind. Would it be kinder to finish him off quickly? I honestly considered finding a brick and striking this mans head with its rough and heavy edge, this would surely be more humane than leaving a person suffering, I would never have the bottle for something like this though, as always, I was too much of a coward.
During the short time that I stood close to him a few thoughts crossed my mind. I wondered if he was in pain or had the pain already stopped? I hoped that his pain had finished for him; I hoped that he was only delirious as death grew near.
This was an impossible scene to witness anywhere in the world but I was so close to the centre of India’s over populated capital and I was aware that I was witnessing a mans death on my own. I wanted someone to help me to help him but when some one did eventually walk past they did just that, they just walked past. By now I was both angry with the situation I was in and angry with my apparent uselessness to deal with this. I was too horrified to walk over to the man lying on the ground, I did not want to see the state of his wounds once again but I also felt unable to leave him, no one should have to die alone in such away. I did wish that I was a stronger person but I was not.
I thought for one moment. I walked towards the man on the ground and I lifted my camera, I composed the mans body within my cameras square 6/6 inch frame, I carefully made sure that the mans wounds could not be seen, I pressed the shutter 250th/F4 and I stepped back from him once again. I thought that I was respecting him for making sure that the hole in his head remained unseen to every one but me, I thought that would be respect enough for him. Of cause it wasn’t respect enough and it isn’t respect enough. I was both very proud of myself and also very angry with my actions; I felt that I had done something quite brave but at the same time something very useless. I had and have no right to share the moment of this mans last moments with anyone.
I walked away from this man knowing that my meeting, though completely profound for me, was ultimately a death sentence for him.
I walked away from the scene and I went back to the room at my guest house. I collected my passport and I walked back to New Delhi train station and I bought a train ticket for Goa. I felt like I had to get out of Delhi, I felt like I had committed the crime. Of cause I hadn’t but like a criminal I went back to the place where that the man had been laying. By now his motionless dead body was surrounded by several police officers who began to prod his torso with their feet as though his remains were no better than a dead dogs.
Jason Scott Tilley