Thursday, January 29, 2009

It's a small world after all

Do you ever feel disproportionately happy when you bump into an acquaintance on the street or in the metro? It's not like you had even considered the existence of this person in particular in recent times, but something about meeting someone you know in a crowd of strange faces, the few moments of smiles and snatches of conversation before you both separate again to scurry off to wherever it is that you were scurrying off to, creates a warm feeling somewhere in the center of the body. Well, I suppose the feeling is a little different if you bump into someone you have been actively trying to avoid at all costs, but in either case, the intensity of feeling is often stronger than merely meeting the other person would warrant. I think there is something about the element of chance, the fact that out of all the strangers in the city who are swarming your line of vision, you meet someone you know. There is a level of reassurance that you are significant, you know people or even, for some of us, that someone up there is pulling certain strings and setting up your destiny and whatnot- this little encounter only being a small, exemplary manifestation of it.

I think the more mobile your lifestyle is, the more likely you are to bump into familiar faces in new or unexpected contexts. If you have a fairly large friends' circle where most travel extensively by metro, and so do you, the chances of crossing paths is highly likely and perhaps even inevitable. But statistics aside, it still feels good- I know I get a kick out of it every time it happens. Just such an incident made me start thinking about some of the times where I met old friends in new places, and this blog will now veer from the pseudo objective generalizations of the first paragraph to verbose and subjective reminiscences of memoir. You have been warned.

My earliest memory of a fateful 'coincidence' was when I was 4 years old. At the time, we used to live in Mombasa, Kenya. It was my sister's 3rd birthday and we had gone shopping for presents on that particular sunny afternoon. I don't remember what exactly I was doing at the crucial juncture in time but my mom says I was staring blankly at the clothes in a shop while she was asking the shopkeeper to pull down a dress that was on display when my sister, thinking that we had left, walked out in search for us. In the few moments between getting the dress down and my mother looking back to try the dress on my sister, she had managed to disappear into the crowd on the street. What followed were harrowing hours of first looking for her on the street, then calling my father and repeating the search and eventually filing a report at the police station when the search proved futile. We were pushed out of the police station after a few hours, told to go home and that we would be informed as soon as any information was received. It was late evening by the time we reached home, exhausted and worried sick. Our neighbors were good friends and instead of going straight to our apartment, my parents decided to go there first and see if they had any suggestions or if there was something they could do. Imagine our joy but also sheer shock when we saw my sister eating some cookies and milk, seated next to our neighbor's daughter at the dining table! Apparently, she wandered out of the shop we were in and walked about 20 meters to a dentist's office and decided to sit in the waiting room and cry since "my mommy left me and went home." Our neighbor's daughter had an appointment at the same office that afternoon and they saw my sister there. My sister wasn't able to explain where my mother was, so they brought her home with them. This was before everyone had cell phones, so they just had to wait for us to come back home before they could let us know.

This was the first and perhaps most significant in a series of coincidences and intersecting trajectories that I have experienced till date. We were able to get back in touch with other friends from Mombasa who were then living in Bombay over a decade later, weeks before I was going there for a trip. I found friends from Athens (Greece, not Ohio or Georgia) living in Philadelphia through a random Google search of their name in a moment of boredom, when I was on vacation several hours away in Maine. When I went to work in Pune, India, two summers ago, I missed my Bombay-Pune flight and the lady who had been sitting next to me from London offered that I go with her by bus. On the bus, we talked about my plans and when I told her I hadn't found accommodation yet and that I was planning to stay in a hotel in the same area as my office, she insisted that is was a bad area and that I come with her to her brother's home instead. I initially hesitated, but then accepted. In a few more hours of conversation, we realized that her brother had also lived in Mombasa for a couple years, moving there after we had already left, but was great friends with the neighbor who had found my sister when she was three. A made friends with an Indian medical student living in Moscow over the internet and when I came to visit the city, I decided to meet up with him. My mother was worried about me meeting a strange guy and asked me to ask him if he, by any chance, knew the only Indian med student in Moscow that she knew. Turns out, not only did the two guys know each other, they were great friends and had been roommates for years! During the course of conversation, I found out I had a common friend with someone I met in a bar in NYC and that he had stayed with the same friend I had stayed with during our spring break in Florida, and he got there later the same day as when I left. Here's an example of trajectories that barely missed, but later intersected. I don't even remember the guy's name now, but it felt cool when we realized what had happened!

The latest in the series happened last week. One of my ESL students who I teach at her home (I also work with her teenage son) suggested I meet one of her daughters. She felt that the two of us had a lot in common and would get along fabulously. The daughter and I decided to go snowboarding and while the conversation was a little awkward at first, we ended up having a really good time. I later added her as a friend in Facebook and to our surprise, we noticed that we had a common friend. It was one of my closest friends in Moscow, whom I had met randomly at a cafe. She doesn't even speak much English but we get along incredibly well (we traveled to St.Petersburg and Nijhny Novgorod together, went ice-skating numerous times and plan to travel through the Caucasus and South America). Anyway, it turns out that my friend was an old family friend of hers, that their mothers were great friends from decades ago and that they had more or less lost touch in recent times. I gleefully anticipate the pleasure of setting up a surprise meeting with the two of them together this weekend. The daughter already knows that I know them both but she does not expect my friend to be there, and my friend has no idea that I am somehow linked to the other girl. Such 'coincidences' feel good when they happen to you, but it feels even better to be the 'hand of fate.' 8-)

Meanwhile, I'm seriously considering making an exhaustive list of all the people I know and going over the list every time I meet someone, to check if we don't infact have common friends from who knows where. Ok, maybe such an action will not only hinder new friendships but make me lose all old ones too- but it boggles my mind to think of how small this world is!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Another evening in the rabbit hole

Last evening when Alice climbed down the rabbit hole, she just missed her train. She was coming down the steps when she looked up to see the train at the station, ran around a bulky bear who was shuffling along oblivious to the soon to be gone train, and cleared the last three steps in a delightful almost-maybe-dangerous jump to get onto the platform, only to have the doors shut right in front of her face.

As a disappointed and dejected Alice watched the train pull away, she tried to alleviate the impending boredom of the approximately three minute wait for the next train by staring at the creatures around her. The bear had now shuffled its way to the platform and seemed to be looking at her from the corner of its eye, a faintly perceptible smile of what could only be ridicule stamped on the corners of its lips. Alice wanted to contemptuously wrinkle her nose at him, but fought the desire. She had read a random internet article about the harmful effects of stress earlier that day and scrutinized what must surely be the first sign of fine lines that would lead to wrinkles on her forehead later that very day, so she hurriedly pushed aside the desire to glare and attempted a blank stare instead. Taking a deep breath she looked to her right, where three flamingos stood in single file, facing the the wall with the station name etched on it, looking blankly (they must have thought about wrinkles too) into the mid-distance. The only indication of a potential for thought and feeling were headphones creeping out of inner recesses of their furry jackets and into their ears. Alice stared at these immaculately groomed stiletto heeled statues for a minute, admiring their features and feathers while not one of them showed any sign of noticing. She was certain that creatures could often sense it when they were being watched, even from out of their direct range of vision, but the flamingos in this country rarely ruffled a feather, as if expecting and welcoming the attention but being too regal to acknowledge it. Or perhaps it was because Alice was shorter than most of them and a foreigner to boot - particularly high heeled boots- so even if they did notice her, her strange behavior was exactly the sort of thing to be expected given her strange clothing and stranger skin. Meanwhile, already dangerously close to boredom as well as the intoxicating light drowsiness that creeps into an evening after a day of hard work, Alice paced back and forth on the platform a little. Just when she had almost given up hope of ever leaving this quiet, nearly deserted and somewhat chilly platform, she saw the lights of what must surely be hope, signaling a train in their wake.

And what a train it was! Instead of the usual gray-blue fare, this one was orange and had black stripes, simultaneously a tiger and a fire. Alice, never one to shirk from adventure, slipped into the raging maw and looked around herself in wonder. While the composed faces around her were the same as always, this could not make Alice overlook the novelty of this train. The seats on one side of the train had been banished by an invisible hand, with some standing space there instead. The lighting was like that of a state of the art museum and there was indeed art on the wall in focus- and what a state it was in! Framed into beautifully gilded borders, but nonetheless attempting to jump out and expand, there was a row of still lifes and landscapes suspended on an unassuming bark blue wall. The names of the artists rang no bells and the dates were within the last 10 years, but what these paintings lacked in age and name recognition, they made up for in composition. Alice delightfully made her way across the row, all the while trying her best to maintain her balance and not topple over in the speeding, rocking train. As she came to the end of the line, unwilling to be satisfied just yet, Alice hoped that the next wagon would continue the magic, and as soon as the train reached a stop, she jumped out and hopped into the next wagon. And there were more!

What followed was a game of hopscotch as Alice tried to both give each painting at least a fraction of the time it deserved, but be able to see all the paintings in a wagon and be ready to hop onto the next as soon as the train made a stop. Not knowing how many wagons the train had and what masterpieces might be in the next box, she had no choice but to ration her time, pulling and pushing internal forces that told her to linger as well as to hurry, in a staccato scurry from wagon to wagon. All animate beings around her were a blur- she noticed a few in passing only when they were standing in front of a painting she wanted to see. Noticing the look on her face, they all moved aside more or less promptly.

Only when she knew she had reached the last wagon was Alice able to relax, taking her time to really see what was before her. While the flowers had been pretty and the play of light or the motion of waves on water or fields beautiful, only here was she able to see sights truly mesmerizing. Each painting was a scene from the city that was hers and yet not hers, its buildings, squares, cathedrals, rivers and bridges. One painting in particular, of evening falling on a familiar yet strange cathedral that looked neither of one religion nor of another, with plain steeples capped by bulbous domes with geometric rainbow colored designs, drew her to itself. As she continued looking, one of the blue towers with golden stars turned into a hat and a long-haired wizard showed up to fill it.

She asked the only question she could think to ask in such a situation:
"What is your favorite color?"
"I like any," he replied.
As if this was the cue for the end of their conversation, he kissed the back of her hand without breaking eye-contact, bowed, and disappeared. Alice noticed that he had left something behind- a page with the outline of a rainbow colored lion, the sort of thing a five-year old or a famous impressionist might have made. Picking up her memento, she looked up and out the glass doors as she felt the train slowing down again. The dark tunnel gave way to a bright and blurry platform that came into focus as the train lost speed. Seeing the station that she knew must be hers, Alice climbed out when the doors slid open. She got off the train, climbed up a staircase, through the swinging doors that marked entries and exits between the upper and nether worlds, out the rabbit hole and into her regular, mundane world. The feeling of light intoxication spurred by the evening lingered.