Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Brief Encounter

I got acquainted with E solely by chance three years ago. It was a cloudy day, quite like today, and I was waiting at the Goethe Institut cafeteria after a regular day at the university, eating a chicken roll and reading a photocopied article on Edith Sitwell. I had a lot of time on my hands until class, and although conscious of the middle-aged woman sitting in front of me with a sandwich and coffee, I didn't feel particularly inclined to a conversation. She began talking first, and I remember that what followed was a rather fulfilling conversation, which when looked back, strikes as especially remarkable to happen in a random dreary evening on an unremarkable cafe. Strangely, I do not remember all that we talked about that evening after all these years, but it's one of those feelings of complaisance, which settles down after you've experienced some thing pleasant. I learnt that she was a documentary film-maker, that she was born in Germany to Bengali parents, and had spent a considerable number of years there before moving to Chennai, where she finished her studies, and where she still lived. We did talk about Bengal, and Bengalis, naturally lamenting about the sorry state of affairs, and after a quarter of an hour I went to class. Before that, I did promise to find her in Facebook.

I did find her and we became "friends", even having occasional online conversations; but not too many, or too often. In fact, this year we had more conversations than the previous three years put together. All these little details came to my mind when I was driving to Goethe Institut around noon today to meet her. Our previous plan for a rendezvous a couple of months ago fell through because I couldn't adjust my time-table. I was slightly apprehensive, afraid that she wouldn't remember how I looked in 2010, and my Facebook pictures wouldn't match my real appearance. These little causes for concern passed away when clutching an umbrella, I stood in front of the Goethe Institut gate, my way blocked by a massive lorry. After some expert manoeuvres I went to the table where she was waiting for me, not even realising that all my awkwardness and apprehension had passed because of an ineptly parked lorry.

Over lunch we talked about Dawn French's Absolutely Fabulous, and the hippie mommy urging her petite daughter to get some action; the new vicar's boobies being a "dead giveaway" in the misogynist Dibley; classic Doordarshan shows of the 80s; German medieval towns; NRIs in London; and Satyajit Ray's books. Over coffee -- by which time we had progressed to a nearby mall, failed to find a convenient time for a cinema in the plex, discovered a new mobile library service, and compared James Herriot and Gerald Durrell -- we talked more extensively about travelling and the Theosophical Society (of which she is a member), and tried to understand why Bongs, despite being the first to welcome Modernism, to always go the farthest, and progress the most, get the soppiest the moment they have kiddies. We talked about friends who dated for a couple of months, and one midnight decided to get married the following day, stayed in love for four years, and then separated to get embroiled into spirituality; of a friend who had a fling while travelling in South America and got pregnant and reared the child single-handedly; of classmates, who for ten years raised eye-brows at the prospect of someone else dating, but the moment they turned twenty, got married to complete strangers, and posted intimate honeymoon photographs on Facebook. Once E was travelling in Italy, and having spent a day in a little fishing village, was supposed to meet her friend at the station. When she discovered that she had missed the last bus, she decided to hitch a ride for the first time in her life. She admits to being extremely scared, but finally finding a willing woman who spoke no English or German or French, but only a certain dialect of Italian. E's broken Italian conveyed her destination, but during that one hour journey with a complete stranger who was driving her to a station in an unfamiliar land with an unfamiliar language, and laughing at the latter's jokes about her mother-in-law, E realised that language is not enough, and not the ultimate. There's some thing more -- humanity.

I tried to picture myself in a similar situation, and admitted that I would never have the courage to hitch a ride. I would be forced to call my parents thousands of miles away, and listen to their obsessive neurotic rant, which would of course carry no constructive advice. By that time, my parents had called me twice, urging me to return home, asking how long I would be, because until I returned, they couldn't go to the departmental store in the neighbourhood. We finished our cookies, and I expressedly declined E's invitation to catch the 8 pm movie, and her jaunty trip to a jewellery shop. Accepting that I would have to let go of myself from time to time, we walked down the wet streets to my car. In the midway I found her a taxi which would take her to a jeweller's, and after turning to laugh at some "Maru chicks", we exchanged goodbyes. I walked the slightly longish walk to my car alone, to allow an insensitive man to drive me around, answering to every whim of my parents who pay for his services, and for the car.

It's a night for listening to Van Morrison, and I called E half an hour ago, to ascertain whether her other plans had worked out. She extended an invitation to Mumbai, where she lives now, and I gracefully accepted, knowing that I could never travel alone there. After the brief conversation, I imagined what our future encounters could be like. She has promised to take me around Sudder Street in Calcutta, and I'm sure, if I ever went to Mumbai, she'd show me its rich colonial history. This bit of fantasy too, I'm sure, will be lost, just like the major chunk of the imaginary conversation I had made up in my mind today before meeting her.

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