Thank you for the gesture, stranger

img_1592

Dear stranger with the kindest eyes,

I fear I’m already forgetting you, the little details that I cherish remembering about people – strangers encountered in brief moments of serendipity, composed on a cosmic instrument that plays out our lives like keys in perfect symphony on a grand, old piano.

Yesterday night was the first time I was ferried around on a wheelchair in a shopping mall. It was a terrifying lesson in losing control, publicly. I’m temporarily impaired by an injury that will heal in a week or two, not a permanent disability. But I got a taste of what the latter would feel like. What hurt a travel writer more than his inability to walk was the almost-ubiquitious pity he received from complete strangers. A wheelchair seems to mandate a series of reactions from people – first comes surprise; then, an exaggerated effort to move out of the way; followed by a look of pity and wonder; and lastly, an aversion of one’s eyes as if this grim fate is contagious. I wore camouflage trousers, and wished I were invisible.

When I joked and laughed out loud with the two friends who wheeled me around like it was any other day at the mall, spectators marvelled at the boy who could laugh on a wheelchair! I nearly jumped out of my quasi-coffin on crutches, to prove that I was still human. Capable of wit and sarcasm, and love and laughter. As if it needed to be proved.

And then, there was you. In a summer yellow top, I think. Or was it the orange of dusk skies? I forget. It was, after all, merely a glance. I looked away from your approaching silhouette, assuming you’d be one of the scores to gift me a look of unequivocal ‘sorry’ for the day. But you stopped in your tracks, bent down, and looked me in the eyes. For the first time that day, a stranger talked to me. Me, and not my bandages which seemed to be a screaming beacon of attention. “Get well soon,” you said, almost sang it as if in a musical, emphasizing the soon, like the world couldn’t wait to see me back on my feet. Your kind eyes spoke of concern and optimism, not a condescending form of sympathy. For the first time that day, I felt that I fit in. That I was a part of the species that populated the mall and indulged in reckless shopping, and selfies, and inappropriate humour. For the first time that day, I grinned from ear to ear and meant a “Thank you!”

Friends who do not miss a single chance to pull a fractured leg joked about how a wheelchair couldn’t dial down my charm. They’re the best, stranger. They would later take me window shopping, and to a birthday party, without ever letting me feel the weight of my helplessness. But through that entire evening of being towed around and stared at, I carried the gentle warmth of a kind gesture by a beautiful stranger who seemed to know just what I needed to hear and who did not heed to the walls we build between one another.

People think changing the world comes only from big policy decisions and seats of power and money. But change is also in the little things, stranger. Smiling at the overworked staffer behind the counter, an inflated tip for the waiter with the torn apron, a bag of holiday candies for the homeless, a random conversation struck with an immigrant alienated for her dreadlocks, the girl who wishes you on a wheelchair when everyone else averts their eyes… It’s the little things that matter, it’s the little things that stay with you.

Thank you for the gesture, stranger. It made my day. I hope you know that.

~ The boy in the brown jacket

Advertisements

Rebuilding Nepal, one smile at a time: A photo essay

I had the fortune of seeing Nepal in November last year, in its full glory, while attending a climate change conference as an Indian journalist. When a deadly earthquake struck the affectionate country on April 25 this year and shattered its homes and heritage, their smiles haunted me. I knew i had to go back to see for myself what had become of the places that had welcomed me so warmly. I had to bring their stories to the world. A month after the quake, I got an opportunity to cover rehabilitation efforts in Kathmandu.

Although i wasn’t scheduled to, i hopped on a relief truck convoy (of Live to Love Foundation), with some kung-fu nuns of the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery, headed to reportedly the worst-hit areas in the mountains, Sindhupal Chowk district. It was worse than i had expected or remembered from my time in Kutch during 2001. Whole villages had been wiped out, many houses lining the narrow, steep route barely hung on, some dangled precariously over the cliff’s edge; but the people continued to wear their smiles when confronted by a stranger offering to help, even if only by means of his camera. A week before that, social media was raging against the Indian media for overdoing their coverage of the disaster. While their concerns were partly true, if you set aside those who had access to Twitter even in times when people were looking for potable water, the ground reality was very different: i was welcomed, once again, with open arms. Not once did a local object to a picture being taken or a question being asked. A man taking shelter under tarpaulin sheets on the playground of what was once a school offered me tea. Such is the soul of Nepal; they lose their homes, families, and history, but not their kindness.

Here are some of my frames from a Nepal that was knocked down but got back up. Immediately after coming back to India, i filed my stories and apart from the frames that my publication carried, I stayed clear of publishing any more since it felt like indulging in tragedy porn. But now that the dust has settled and Nepal is rebuilding itself, i feel compelled to share its story with you. It’s a story not of disaster, but of resilience and compassion in the face of daunting odds.

Click on any picture to view them all in fullscreen mode along with their context (highly recommended):