Thank you for the gesture, stranger

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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

Is it just me?

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Tell me…
Do you ever wake up at night
Sweating over reality,
Beads of a reluctant memory
Trickling down nostalgic cheeks,
Where love once birthed red?
Does your skin remember that misty February?
…Or is it just me?

Tell me…
Do your walls whisper
Conversations we conjured
(And those we couldn’t)
Under the starry veil
Of your silent, white,
Missing winter?

Tell me…
Do words evade your tongue
When i invade a thought?
Does our endless story demand of you
The same answers
I once sought?

Tell me, my dear…
Do i haunt you
The way you haunt me?
.. On endless nights
.. On lonely trains
.. In a paper plane’s flight
.. In a stranger’s face
.. On the break of dawn
.. In a lover’s embrace
.. On melancholic monsoon days
.. In scavenged poetry
.. On saved texts
From a ghost of a memory.

Or is it just me?

The poetry of smudged kohl

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Dear stranger who can’t decide what to order,

Your face was evocative of an autumn, wild orange, unapologetic in its eloquence. It hosted your life story, in large, lucid letters. If only I could read the language, I’d have savored the poetry of raindrops in your smudged kohl, memorized the tombstones of kisses on your cheeks and listened to the childhood tales that constellations of freckles told. Instead, I just mumbled, “Their muffins are the best.”

When you looked in my unsure eyes with yours, the hue of coffee beans and dark chocolate, i knew the memory of that moment would keep me warm for many winters to come. You asked me nothing; the questions, formless and wordless, washed up on your shores, helpless against the tides of a thought long forgotten. I never offered any answers; you fetched them, effortlessly picking out the lies from the uncomfortable confessions of my silence.

We sat at the same table, never faking a courtesy. What did we talk about? I can’t quite recall. I was lost in the way your eyes lit up every few minutes, the way you held a smirk when you thought you had me figured, the way you trembled when you realized i had dug out more truths than you had dared reveal in years, the way your gaze swayed every time you knew i was reading you, the way it returned with a knowing smile. I could feel it on me while i stirred whirlpools in my coffee, and when my thoughts wandered out the cafe window to fetch memories from lost cities.

Our thoughts jammed like a college rock band, at first trying out covers, and then some original tunes magically fell in place. You believed in zodiacs; I said there couldn’t be just 12 kinds of people on earth. We agreed to disagree, and I reluctantly told you mine, half fearing I’d be a sign you don’t like. Who knew we’d have the same sun sign and I’d almost instantly regret the rant against astrology.

When we parted, there were no promises of another morning of caffeinated conversation, only a hope that you would reach out some day to the boy who steals your thoughts. I told you i’d look forward to it. I do.

– The boy who drops his change

You’re not alone, stranger

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Dear stranger who wonders why,

It was just another morning of bleary eyes peering into a can of coffee – dark-roasted and ground, and absent. I’d forgotten to get a new pack, again. The coffee machine stood waiting, mocking me like mom does, minus her tinge of affection, over my forgetfulness. At the mercy of habit, i dragged my reluctant feet to a cafe two blocks away. Fingers anxiously tapping the counter, i ordered my cup of morning addiction and waited. Whether it was the aroma of the beans, that purportedly began their journey on the hills of Chikmagalur and ended in hot water in a Delhi cafe, or the sight of you picking cuticles of finger skin while gazing out of the window, I couldn’t tell, but the golden morning suddenly seemed to seep in.

I could tell that you were hurting. Not from the skin-bruising, but from the questions that squabbled for space in your mind, and on your notebook’s last page. As the wind played peekaboo with the covert content of your moleskin journal, I could only make out crooked question marks at the end of each thought that seemed to run into another on its way to a possible closure. I could not see what they were, or what they demanded of you. But i watched their contours reflect on your pale forehead, creases which you ironed with a facade which smiled at the waiter, the girl on the counter and the old man on the next table. It’s only when you stared into the vacuum of life beyond the window stained by last night’s rain that the furrows sneaked out from behind your courtesy.

I recognize the abyss when I see it, stranger; I remember the fall all too clearly. The open page, which you reaffirmed against the breeze every now and then, waited for its second word, the first being a large, conspicuous WHY followed by a serpentine symbol that passed for a punctuation mark. A bookmark gathered dust at the edges, pressed between pages of a novel overdue. The half-full cup of coffee had long given up its attempts at seizing your attention and the stranger across the cafe could not concentrate on his. You were a reflection for him, of months gone by without a single straight thought. You were him, on grey rainy days and those marred by too bright a sun. You were his image, on hazy mirrors that clung to cobweb-riddled walls much like you clutched your questions. They won’t run away; they never do, stranger. They need you as much as you, them.

To question your existence, its purpose, and everything around it, is the greatest question ever asked, to me at least. And sadly one that comes with no promise of an answer. I have spent far too many days gritting my teeth over the anxiety of not knowing Why, stranger. I have turned far too many whimsical, intuitive corners in search of that one answer which lies just round the next one. And always round the next one. I have missed far too many beautiful sights on the way; lost touch with far too many places i called home. I have let go of many i could have walked with, albeit slower, and have sped past many others i could have loved. I continue to run on the same rugged path, believing my choice at that fork long gone did not just conform to an inspiring poem but will also lead me to a purpose served. But I’ve slowed down, stranger. Perhaps the answer isn’t waiting for you and me somewhere beyond the horizon; perhaps it lies in the very steps we take. Maybe, just maybe, it lies in the trail of dents we leave behind.

I hope you got the fresh cup of hot coffee, peppered with chocolate sprinkles, and the note I left with it. I hope you always remember… You’re a beautiful person in a magical world. And that you’re not alone when you drown in the despair of your existence. The only answer to it, i feel, is to love madly: not just the next boy you fall for, but everything from the cup of coffee on your table, the musings of another existentialist which outlived him and made it to your desk, the stray dog who rubs his snout against your palm, and the first sun rays that perch on your eyelids at dawn to that magnificent reflection in the mirror, replete with all its unique scars. All perfection is alike, stranger, but art comes from aberrations.

Until another magical morning,
The boy in the grey hoodie

Your other Today

Today

Dear stranger-turned-lover-turned-stranger,

This day, last year, you said you didn’t love me any more. That it did not feel the same way. I stood by you like i had always promised i would; you walked away. You don’t know what happened next, do you?

I knocked on your door on a sunny spring morning. The tulips in your front yard shied away from the scorching sky. I came with roses and scrunched up notes in my pocket- each one a different draft of what I would say. I didn’t have to open them of course, for I had felt the words lodged in my throat for four days. Four days: That’s 12 cups of unstirred coffee, 6 half-cooked meals and 2 cold pizzas, 3 cans of ice cream, 4 bars of chocolate (okay, 7!), 4 long sunsets, and a sum of 3,45,600 moments without you in my life. The moment you opened the door, my eyes blurted it all out.

We exchanged our eccentric vows at a placid beach on a stormy day, a few monsoons down the way. The photoshoot was washed away, but the clouds giggled as we kissed in their rain. Our first dance was barefoot, on sand birthed by the sea, lit by a crescent moon the size of a paper lantern. The ocean swayed with us that night, before the darkness fell asleep in your gentle embrace.

It’s too bad the dream always ends there: In a perfect world, painted the deep blue of a dawn nigh and an ocean full, marked by the caress of hair that held the perfume of daisies and filled with the harmony of your bloodsong on my skin. It’s a universe where I knew what to say that day, and you were home to open that door. Out here, right now, pizza and unstirred coffee await tired hands, nostalgic of a day we never had, as another letter recklessly crawls beneath your locked door.

Once yours,
Just another whim

Love is in the details, stranger

Dear stranger who spills her coffee,

I saw you at the station today, as I waited for the train to start another clumsy day. A day which was to be filled with mundane tasks at an easy job, banal conversations, and gulping down cupfuls of machine coffee. But then, there was you, cupping your morning cappuccino with both hands, like a kid his candy bar, and floating in the waters of one of my favourite books. The roaring light at the end of the subway tunnel failed to wake me from the nostalgic stupor your silhouette evoked. I was, for a moment, 18 again.

“She was beautiful,” I would later tell my friend. Not because you looked pretty in that unpretentious grey cardigan, or because your hair flowed effortlessly, like a river down your shoulders, before your collar bone split them into streams. Not because you had the perfect amount of kohl in your eyes. Not because you had the grace of a dancer in the way you tackled the bumpy train ride, which made many a commuter lose his morning feet.

You were beautiful because you stood and watched as an old man took the ‘ladies seat’ in front of you. It made him smile the most soulful toothless smile i had seen.

Because you made funny faces at the baby across the aisle until her laughter, like the jingle of a wind chime caressed, filled the heavy air.

Because when the coffee fogged your glasses at the station, you slid them into your hair with a dimpled smile and continued reading. The embarrassed innocence that found its way to your lips, and the knowing melancholy that stayed in your eyes made me want to cry. For it took me back to a time when you, and i, and so many beautiful people we know, smiled without crying within.

Because you skipped a few trains at the station to finish a chapter, and your coffee. I skipped them to read you.

Because when you spilled your coffee with the careless wave of a hand while Murakami occupied your mind, you gasped for your copy of Norwegian Wood, not caring for the stain it left on your sleeve. My copy stayed firmly tucked in my bag. You were so much more than an author could conjure.

If I said I fell in love at first sight, it’d make a poetic line, and perhaps a popular post; maybe even inspire a song or two, but it wouldn’t be true. For Love is in the details, stranger: the good, the bad, and the nasty. The ones that you flaunt, the ones that you hide, the ones that make you you: I’d want to know them all.

I want to know which birds sing outside your window at dawn. Do your groggy eyes smile at their melodies? Or do you steal a minute more of sleep at every snooze of a persistent alarm? Is your hair neatly tied up, or do you let them entangle your dreams? How do you take your morning tea, or coffee? What terrifies you? What excites you? Which is your favourite love song, stranger?

I’d want to listen to your idea of happiness, while you stared into nothingness and pictured it.  I’d lie beneath the stars with you, listening to your stories – the colours of your childhood, the elder brother or the younger sister or the imaginary friend; your first crush; the first time you dared to love, the times your heart broke; your hopes and dreams: the ones that stayed, others that you buried; the books that made you cry the most, the movies that made you laugh the hardest; moments of triumph, and those of defeat, and those that you hide between pages of a journal.

After all, Love is in the details, stranger. It’s only when you have seen the other jump with joy and curl up on the floor broken, laugh uninhibitedly and cry helplessly, love madly and hate fiercely, survive their mondays and live their fridays; when you’ve heard all their anecdotes, over and over again; when you’ve held their manicured hand at a party, and kissed their morning face in bed; when you’ve marvelled at their perfections and adored their flaws; when you’ve stormed out the door only to realize you miss them too much; when the spark has all but disappeared and yet you can’t imagine a day without them – only then are you truly in Love, a place where a whim does not decide your fate. You do.

What do you think, stranger?

 

Until tomorrow’s train ride,

The boy who can’t keep his shoelaces tied.