Where? It doesn’t matter. Of anywhere, perhaps. Are there any lepers left anywhere now? I am the last leper… No it doesn’t sound quite the same. I must belong to somewhere, somewhere you’ve never heard of, of course, but somewhere.
So I am the last leper of Uttar Nishaidhapur. It sounds like a place that would have a leper colony, and that wouldn’t care that there was only one remaining. That’s why I have to tell you my story. In Uttar Nishaidhapur they aren’t interested.
I am old. I was once something other than a leper. I remember my father was a merchant. He travelled with goods for months at a time. Sometimes he came back with a great deal of money and we feasted through the rains and we helped the neighbours to eat and to marry. Sometimes he came back walking, barefoot, having lost everything but his robe. Then the neighbours helped us.
I would have been a merchant too. I would have done what my father did. No one would think of doing anything else. But on one of the occasions when he came back with nothing he shut himself up for three days, seeing no one, not even my mother. Then he went out again, and this time he did not come back at all.
As I had no father, then, I could not follow his profession, so I must go into trade. I became a craftsman of a kind. I was taught by an old man how to make some type of object. I no longer remember what it was I learnt to do. It did not last long, I think. Soon afterwards I became a leper, and that is what I have been ever since.
I have been told many things about being a leper by people who are not lepers. They told me what causes people to become lepers. They spoke of bacteria and sputum and vitamins and minerals and the cleansing of food and the washing of hands. They told me that the Great Prophet of the Christians had a great love of lepers, expressed in their Holy Book. It made me happy to know that, as we are not loved here, but I am not a Christian. They told me that I am called by other names in polite society. They told me that the doctors have found a way to make me not be a leper.
I stopped listening to such people when I heard that. They thought they were good people because they gave me food and did not throw stones or set dogs on me, but there are many people here who do not do that. I attended to them from politeness, but after that I began to fear them. I am a leper. I have always been a leper. I am too old to change now.
We do not work. We cannot work. But we must eat like other men. Thus our daily duties are determined, as are those of other men. I rise early, because I am old, and because I am hungry, and because the places I must sleep are hard and cold and uncomfortable. I can have no bed but the earth, no pillow but the stones. I nightly sleep in my mother’s bosom. I have learnt to make it sound poetic, or pitiful, of ascetic, depending on the ear that will hear it.
I cannot buy linen, and no one can afford to give me linen when it must be destroyed once I have touched it. So my bed is the earth. My home is the road.
When I am awake I walk, with a bowl before me. It is a small bowl, the only thing I have. But I know that a small bowl is good. People will put more in a small bowl than a big one. It is one of the many things I have learned over the years. I do not understand it; I do not understand many of these things, but I have learnt that it is so, and that is good enough.
But enough of what I tell the tourists- oh yes, there are tourists of leprosy as of all things- you want to know of my life.
I live as you do. I seek food and shelter and comfort and company and women. I seek status and power and solitude and health and youth. Exactly as you do. I often have food, but never enough to be satisfied. On rare occasions I have shelter. The other things I cannot desire. You need one in order to desire the next, and I can never go beyond shelter. On those occasions when I have shelter I desire comfort. I can desire nothing further, because I never achieve comfort. Never.
But I am still like you. Although I cannot seek company, or women, or prestige, or power, or health, or youth, I know that I would seek them if I could, and value them if I had them. I know this because although I cannot have them, I envy them in the people who do. I live as you do. I seek what I desire.
This life is not what it was. We were many once, and people gave alms as unthinkingly as they did all the most natural things in life. They gave little, it’s true. The smallest coin they had, to each such as I whose path they crossed. And they despised and feared and pitied you even as they gave. They did not look you in the face, they could not. They were afraid of becoming like you some day. But they gave. Now there is no fear, only contempt, disgust.
The young do not understand. Most have never seen a man like me. They think I am a crazy old man because I shout as I walk and do not come near them, and my clothes are old and torn and dirty from the many roads I travel daily. I was once like them. I can remember how it feels to be a boy, surprised, frightened, amused, fascinated, by everything that he sees and feels. I was a boy once, with a father to teach him. I wish I had a boy of my own now, to teach and to love, but when I was old enough to be a father I could not marry. It is one of the things lepers do not do.
My life is the road. I have no other because I can be nowhere. I belong nowhere. I am of Uttar Nishaidhapur, and this cannot change, but those who share my birthplace wish I were of some other place. And so I walk the roads from one village to another, and another and yet another, and so I keep on along innumerable, interminable roads, until those of the first village are ready to see me again. It is the life of the peddler, of the knife-grinder, of the reddleman. It is the life of the leper.
I see much on the road, but I cannot tell it. I can talk to no one. What I see I turn into stories and I tell them to myself as I walk. Then I tell them again at night as I try to sleep. The stories are better by day. They are more real, as the world is more real. They are a life that I create for myself and it is true while I tell it. While I am seeing what I see and there is light and there are people and the world is before me the stories are true and I am part of the world I walk through. By day I am real, and not only real; by day, I am great. At night these stories are only dreams, and they sadden me with their unreality. At night I know they are false, and they taunt me with their falsehood. At night I am no one, not even the last leper.
I provide a service, like all artisans, craftsmen, tradesmen, professional men. A doctor heals the sick, some of the time, and is respected and rewarded for it. A lawyer achieves justice against neighbours and governments, and is respected and rewarded for it. A potter, a carpenter, a farmer, provides objects necessary to the householder, essential to life, or to comfort, and is little respected for it, but he is rewarded. I allow the poor to attain merit. I can only deal with the poor, since there are ascetics who serve the wealthy, peripatetic men of superior religious practice with whom I cannot compete, but nor do they compete with me. The poor are my clients, because they fear me, and they fear becoming like me. Thus, they obtain merit at the same time as they allay their fear, and the service is more valuable to them.
I survive, as all men must survive. A man with a trade will always survive. He may have nothing, as I have nothing, he may know hunger, and thirst, and cold, and solitude, and the absolute despair of those whom the world has abandoned, but he will live.
Yes, my trade is dying. I am the last leper of Uttar Nishaidhapur, and I am old. It will die with me.