Wednesday, 8 March 2017

My first encounter with her was a rather short one- one she had written off as a customary, compulsory small talk with all of her clients. Although I had met her only once earlier, she seemed strikingly different on that day. She looked weary and tired and it felt to me as if a part of her happiness had been stripped off from her.

Quick to judge, I passed her off as one from the clan of angry aunties. I secretly disliked them and kept away from interactions with them wherever possible. But there was a lingering melancholy in the air, one I had familiarized myself with over the past six months of my life, ever since granny's demise. Such melancholy has always been ubiquitously lacerating.  Today, her silence intrigued me and left me wanting for answers.

Before I could start a full-fledged conversation, I tried to earn her trust. Unlike earlier, she seemed reticent. She had perhaps forgotten me and my story, but I remembered every detail of my conversation with her on our very first meeting.

It had been a rather uninteresting day, and in spite of being a complete stranger she had asked me to sit down next to her for a while on the sofa near the entrance, and talk. Simply converse. Her workplace was tiny, a studio flat converted into a beauty salon. The salon had been passed over to the new owner when the previous one decided to leave for India. The kitchen, located at the outer wall of the building, had already been replaced by two small partitioned areas. The central hall, which a client would enter into was the only breathable area in the room. It is beyond me how anyone could spend eleven, sometimes twelve hours of their day in such a claustrophobic setting. This was enough reason for my almost non-extant compassion to be brought alive.

I was being rather reclusive those days, but had no interesting things to do, and I gave in to her request and sat intently listening to her. As she spoke, her delicate voice diverted my attention from the rather irritating noise of the ticking clock. It was the first time that I heard a sound in the room that was not from inanimate objects.

It was mostly she had spoken and she had done it hurriedly, as if she had too much to say in absolutely no time. She spoke of her child who she had left back at home, of her hope to create a better future for them in this new city, about her husband who lived in the same city but stayed separately, about her small rented apartment in the outskirts and a room-mate who she occasionally mentioned. She didn't seem particularly happy or sad regarding her situation, but four months back, during her first month in the city she seemed more hopeful.

Today, it was my turn to break the ice.

"Aapne apna naam Kavya bataya tha na?" I asked her warmly.

She was taken aback. I was then convinced that she remembered nothing about me, nothing substantial at least. Why did I remember her name then? Frankly, I don't know why I did, but I always held even the shortest conversations very close to my heart.

After a while she responded with an intimacy I had never known with a stranger. She was looking for someone to share her distress with, and on that eventful day I was fortunate to be finally trusted with a story that both mended and broke my heart at the same time. 

She began her narration in Hindi infused with non-deliberate Gujarati. I found it difficult to use any known language to coax her. Her story wasn't tragic. But her hopelessness was. 

The mother of a two year old had decided to travel here looking for a job as a beautician. As fate had it, her encounter with  a fellow passenger in the airport resulted in a rendezvous with a lady who owned a salon here. A two-year work contract was signed between them immediately, and her life changed for the worse. Her employer treated her very harshly, providing her only a single bed-space for accommodation. Her pay was meager and she could hardly make ends meet. Adding to this, her desolation and loneliness made the situation insufferable for her.

Though her narration evoked pity, I was equally enraged. In a foreign land, each of us have our own struggles- some more materialistic than others. But these trials and tribulations in their varying degrees have often been more binding than divisive. Here, more often than not, the territorial boundaries that bind us back home are blurred. Blurred into a brotherliness born out of empathy, and its distant cousin optimism. 

I have often described myself as someone incapable of overly affectionate behavior. I have always hated small talk, probably owing to the fact that I was always terrible at it. But I thought I'd give her my number, so she could let me know if she needed a listener. She did not have a cell number, or wifi at her workplace, which made any communication difficult.

During another visit a few months later, I was informed that she had quit work or probably made to do so, and nothing much else was said. As natural as guilt is to me, I felt instant remorse about how I was a listener, but only a passive one. I was regretful that not a single conversation ensued the one in which she had shared her troubles to me. I want to believe I was just trying to keep her safe in my own way. I could probably have escalated her matter to people that could have done something about it, I was unsure whether things would align in her favor or against if I did so.

But to this day, a few years from then, I think everyday of the many ways in which people amidst us are silently suffering. I think of the conversations that we are constantly failing to have. The conversations that aren't deep enough, and sadly not warm enough. The many ways in which we fail to comprehend their aching hearts and minds, and the innumerous times our kindness has failed.

I hope all of this changes one day, and I hope you and I become great conversationalists, sometimes with the the mere purpose of holding a trembling hand back to light and life.

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