Human interaction is so crucial to our happiness. In our country abounding with humans, if we could just pause to reflect and be grateful for the people that cross our path, who exchange pleasantries and bless you, for no rhyme or reason but simply out of force of habit.
This Monday morning, after a weekend of locking myself up in the house, I was feeling particularly snappy, irritable and not looking forward to a blue Monday again. My self-imposed exile is completely voluntary, but like the toad in the well that knows not what lies outside, when I step into the normal world of people buzzing around me like flies, I feel a sense of relief, wonder and a tiny bit of gratitude for having a chance to be a part of humanity again. People who went to boarding school would probably relate to what I am saying.
I park my car every morning at a particular spot. I am usually one of the earlier ones to arrive. The parking attendant rushes to welcome me. The road is empty and I need absolutely no help to park my car. Yet, he ushers me into a vacant spot where the chai wala has not decided to park for the day. He ensures I reverse in correctly, the car is not crooked, I’m clear of the electricity poles and then he implores me to straighten the wheels. He’s a bit anal about that for reasons I haven’t figured out. For this service of seeing me safely to my spot, he charges me a mere Rs. 100 per week. He tells me it’s less than what he charges others, but for me, he makes a concession. I have no idea why. Each morning, as I see his wiry form running towards my car and escorting it, I feel a bit special. I know, it’s what he does. This is his job, but wait a bit, I will soon put this into context, so you’ll know the point I’m trying to get at.
He’s not the only one. There is an old woman who greets me with a toothless grin and several salutes every morning. I once thought she was a beggar and had given her some money. But no. She’s got a kabari business going on, right there on the roadside. She rifles through a large gunny bag and makes neat piles of her rubbish, which she later sells, I imagine. And here I am, invading her precious business premises. So, one morning she confronted me and requested me in the choicest East U.P. dialect if I could park my car elsewhere. A bit embarrassed, a bit humble but firm at the same time, she seeks my co-operation. I gladly oblige and thank her silently for giving me a quiet lesson in resilience. Now each morning, I am rewarded with a grateful, toothless smile.
One morning, I encounter a road-side vendor selling chanas. He has a cane stool slung across one arm, a big basket of boiled chana and garnishings, I imagine, covered with a white gauze. “Beti, boni kara do,” he asks. It’s 8.30 am in the morning. I’m in no mood for chanas, and rarely do I eat food from street vendors. I refuse and proceed to lock my car. I press the remote locking system but it’s jammed. I continue to push the button, waiting for the familiar beep but there’s nothing.
“Arre, theek se dabao,” the chana vendor pipes in. Clearly he doesn’t know how to mind his business. I get a little impatient and proceed to manually lock the car. He continues to offer me his unsolicited help, “is taraf ghumao. Aur zor se ghumao.” I should be irritated, but I’m rather amused. This is a typical scene in this country. Had there been a slightly bigger problem, I’m quite sure people would’ve congregated, offering solutions, or merely curious. Which is all right I guess. Having lived in the West, my perspective has shifted.
Cut to the U.S. of A a few years ago. I am cramming for a French Test and the smoke alarm starts beeping. There’s no smoke in the kitchen. I get up on a stool and start looking for a button to press. Anything to stop the beeping. What’s most annoying is that the intervals between the beeps are 10 seconds. So, every 10 seconds, an annoying sound startles you. The alarm was installed before we moved. I had no literature or manual on it. So, I just walk to my neighbour’s door. An old timer of this colony, and American, perhaps he could help. He opens the door and I explain to him about the smoke alarm going off.
“Oh! I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he says through the mesh door that remains closed. I wait for some more information. But his body language suggests I am intruding. So, I leave, feeling a bit dejected.
I make a few calls to the sprinkling of American friends I have. I get the answering machine. No one is available. The man of the house is out of town. This is the pre-Google days, where doing a Google search for mundane things wasn’t a thing. The alarm continues to beep.
It beeps for four days. I do manage to speak to one or two friends who don’t have answers. Is it that unusual! I mean, one knows what to do when a light bulb fuses. But smoke alarms are alien to me. I focus my attention on French, my concentration forever being interrupted by the constant beep…beep…beep every ten seconds.
Monday morning, I head off to college. I discuss the issue with my class mates and finally, a woman, a home maker tells me the battery is down. Hallelujah! Finally, I see an end to this misery. I go to the hardware store and buy a battery. I replace it and the damn beeping stops.
Looking back now, a seemingly small smoke alarm offers me such great insight into what’s important, and the value of what I call “stranger curiosity.” In my twenties, the parking attendant, the kabari woman and the chana wala would’ve been pains in the asses. I mean, what business did have striking up a conversation with me. One is so naive, head in the clouds kind of stupid in the early days. I hear people constantly complaining about crowds in India, the huddled masses, the nosy pokers, the dawdlers, the idlers, you name it and they’re there on the streets, minding everybody else’s business instead of their own. A distress call to a neighbour in India would’ve drawn a very different reaction, than the one from the insular American.
To summarize, I would any day welcome inquisitiveness over indifference. Long live the inquisitive Indian.