I had always wondered how people of Mumbai could develop camaraderie with other people who just take the same local at the same time as they do, and that too without knowing anything about that person, maybe not even the other person’s name. In the sea of people how could you recognize that “Yes, I met this guy yesterday”? The answer took some time to come but yes, it did.
I don’t know when I noticed her first. Maybe it was November, maybe it was December – but it was one of the two as I remember having the cast on my leg at that time. Those days the ten-minute drive to office had been replaced by the twenty-minute auto-ride. At the traffic junction one day, like always I was drinking in the variety of people around me. Then I noticed her – in a white dress on her scooty waiting for the signal – staring in my direction, no not in my direction, but staring at me and foot long plaster-of-paris cast. She noticed that I noticed, and her glance averted mine, but there were traces of a smile about to appear on her lips. Before the smile could materialize, the signal betrayed and she had disappeared in a cloud of exhaust smoke.
I had a feeling that this was not the first time I had seen her and the subsequent journey to office was spent in mulling over prior, if any, opportune meetings. I remembered that I had seen her sometimes in my office, racking my brains I realized that I had not seen her for a while, and jumped to the conclusion that she may have switched jobs.
Since then almost daily I would spot her, although I never consciously tried to find her, but my subconscious would always pick up her number plate, or her tell-tale pony, or the eyes on their own accord would scan the crowd for her. January came and off came the plaster. I was back on my bike, but I did not see her at the junction. The second day it hit me that I was ten minutes late, she was there daily at the same time, just that, being back on bike, I was late. Next day onwards I left for office ten minutes earlier, and there she was – in the same white dress that I had noticed her first in – she saw that the plaster was off and gave an acknowledging smile. It became a daily ritual, we saw each other at the junction, exchanged smiles, and both went on our own ways. This small odd ritual did have its own quaint charm.
Next month I was off for a week, and everyday as I woke up my thought process would be – “Time to get ready, have to be at the signal at the exact time.” I had not realized it, but she had become the highlight of my day, I was missing her. She had become a part of my daily life, even though she was nobody to me. I had been getting up in a happy frame of mind as I knew I would see her. It was a first for me – willing the vacation to end as soon as possible. I wanted to talk to her, to know her – I decided that on going back I’d surely initiate a conversation.
Starting a conversation – I think this is what spawned the phrase, ‘Easier said then done.’ In my opinion, anyone who can go up to a stranger, and strike up a conversation deserves an award. Even after hours of Googling, I had no idea how to talk to her.
Full of her thoughts I reached the junction, saw her waiting for the signal; I had 50 seconds to say something before the lights changed. I took my bike beside her, mustered up courage, and blurted, “Hey.”
As she turned to face me, I realized that she could very easily take me for a creep, and added breathlessly, “I think we used to work in the same office sometime last year.”
A look of comprehension dawned on her face, “Oh! That is why you looked so familiar,” she replied, and added, “I did not see you at the signal for past few days.”
“Yeah, I was on a vacation,” I smiled at the thought that at least she noticed that I was missing.
“Hope you enjoyed it,” she returned the smile.
“It was good,” I said and the signal turned green. We both went our ways, and I was ecstatic that I had started a conversation with her.
Over the next few weeks, sometimes we’d talk about the weather, sometimes we would trade smiles, and sometimes we’d rue the deplorable condition of the roads. The 40-50 second talks that I was having with her were not enough, I wanted to talk more.
Next time we met at the signal, she started with, “The weather is really pleasant today, hope it rains.”
Instead of replying to that I changed the topic, “You know, I am in no mood to work today. Put it as the Monday syndrome, or chalk it up to the weather, but today I don’t want to enter the office.”
“You are stealing my thoughts,” she grinned.
“Let’s skip work today, and spend a relaxing day. You in?” I asked, keeping my fingers crossed.
She thought for a few seconds, and nodded. “Where have you planned on spending the day?” she asked.
I could not wipe the silly grin off my face, “No clue.”
“Follow me,” she said, and guided me to a cafe that sat on the main road, and yet somehow I had always missed it.
As we settled down in our seats at the cafe, I realized that although my impromptu decision to talk to her and a misplaced bravado had helped me in asking her out, I knew nothing about her! She owns a scooty, is a good driver, seems cheerful, has strong views about the road conditions, and her smile is enchanting – apart from that my knowledge of her could be summarized in one word: zilch!
An introvert by birth, I had spent all my stores of audacity in asking her out. Even though I wanted to talk to her, I had no idea what to talk to her. And she was not helping either, she kept staring at the road observing the ho-hum of routine life. Clutching at straws, I said, “Isn’t the weather lovely today?”
She smiled, “Oh! Small talk again,” seeing my long face on hearing it she added, “Don’t worry, even I am wondering how to start talking.”
Immediately she zoomed from the status of a beautiful, interesting stranger to the status of a demi-Goddess. But her being a demi-Goddess did not guarantee uninhibited, unhindered flow of conversation.
“Lets do one thing, we’ll observe people and try to be Sherlock”, I knew that talking about a third person was always a safe bet.
“That seems to be a good idea. See I already know that you are a Sherlock buff”, she said and added, “Arthur Hailey has a prominent place on my bookshelf”.
My smile left no room for me to shout, “This is working”.
I pointed out a small altercation that had just started. A guy had been going a bit too fast on his scooter and had tapped the bike of a burly guy and a verbal volley was on.
I asked, “What do you think will happen?”
She deduced, “The other guy is muscular, the scooter guy is definitely going to apologize – even though he is with his girlfriend, he won’t pick a fight. I am sure his heart is saying ‘Stand your ground! The girl will be impressed,’ but the mind must be saying, ‘Take a look at the size of this guy, say sorry and avoid any chance of getting your ass kicked in front of her.’ Poor scooter guy, his girlfriend would not be impressed.”
“Nice work Watson, although I think the scooter guy will come out trumps here. Of course not with the burly guy, but with the girl. You are forgetting a major weapon he has – humour. As soon as the bike guy leaves, he is going to pass some caustic comment on him, and the girl would be laughing and would forget that this guy is a wimp.”
And that is what exactly happened. The bike guy left, the guy on scooter passed some remark, the girl laughed uproariously, and hugged him.
She was intrigued, “How did you know that the guy was funny?”
I revealed the logic behind my statement, “Just take a look at him, he is riding a old scooter, he is average looking, is not muscular at all, and does not even fit the geek prototype. The only way he could have impressed the girl was if he was a glib tongue.”
She said accusingly, “So you mean to say that a girl would be impressed solely on the basis of whether a guy has a good bike, or is muscular, or looks good.”
I defended myself, “Hey don’t accuse me, I am not judging you or any other women. I am just saying these things warrant a second glance, and after that it is up to the guy.”
She brought the conversation back to the main topic – us, “So with you what was it that got you a second glance?”
It was obvious, “That is easy, my broken bone was the clincher.”
She smiled, “Bah! You guys are so predictable, you think that something that gives you sympathy or something that makes the girl go ‘Aww’ or ‘Wow!’is the only thing that works? Think again.”
Bemused, I admitted I was at a loss, and had no idea why I got the second look.
She clarified, “You remember what colour shirt were you wearing that day? It was a bright pink shirt that made you look like a flamingo”.
And suddenly the half-smile fell into place, “That was the reason for your near-smile! And here I was thinking either you were heartless to be smiling at my misery or forward enough to give a smile to a complete stranger at a traffic signal.”
She smiled, not the half-smile, but the bewitching one.
I continued, “And remind me to burn the shirt as soon as I am home”.
“Why? Didn’t that shirt get you a second look? You should treasure the shirt. Maybe you can get another second glance”, she said with a wink.
I test the waters, “Maybe, I don’t need that shirt again”.
The smile, for which I was falling for, made another appearance, “Good for me”.
We called in sick to skip our offices, and talked through the day. I went back home feeling more refreshed then I had ever done before. We were exact opposites when it came to trivial things – tastes in food, movies, coffee etc; but when it came to the things that really matter – life, love, and dreams – we were the same. Reflecting on the day, I realized with a shock that we had talked for nearly ten hours and I still did not know her name.
The answer came, now I know how people develop camaraderie by just traveling in the same train. Next week we celebrate our second marriage anniversary, and yes, now I do know her name.
On the occasion completing 9 years of really sporadic blogging, I decided to publish this modified, extended version of my earlier story – A Lucky Break mixed with few flavors of another story I had written eons back./