Familiar Strangers

November 3, 2010 at 9:15 PMNov (Friends, Musings, Slice Of Life)

I saw him this morning again and I was delighted. We dint exchange smile, as usual. But we crossed paths again, as usual. He was not to be seen during the past few days and I during his absence I kept telling Faizan, “I guess, he is ill.” I said this to Faizan several times and once Faizan asked me “Who?” and I said, “I don’t know his name. But people refer to him as Sharma Ji.” Yes, I did not know the name of this man with whom I crossed paths everyday and whose absence did matter to me.

Sharma Ji, is a chai-wala near here, from who has been serving me chai whenever I felt like having chai. His tea stall has no shelter. He sits by the road, under a tree, and with a hand pump stove makes tea. I have never spoken to him other than the usual dialogues of “ek chai… bade cup mein” and “kitna hua?” and he has not replied anything but, “chaar,” or “khulle nahi hai?” As I said, I don’t know his name nor does he know my name. I have overheard people, who like me come to him for a cup of chai, referring to him as Sharma Ji and I have learnt that his second name is Sharma. What made me feel this man’s absence and worried if he was ill? It is a speechless bonding that has been created between us in our silent trysts over some period now.

The last time I saw him, before today, as he saw me, he bent the tea pot to pour chai into a cup and before the chai flowed out of the tea pot he stopped. Yes, he stopped and kept down the tea pot. He had realized that he was pouring tea not into the “bada wala cup.” He stretched his hand to the “bada wala cup” and handed over the chai to me in the “bada wala cup.”

The moment Sharma Ji stopped and stretched his hand to the “bada wala cup,” I was moved deeply. He knew me and my taste, though we had never interacted with each other. He has many customers, like me, who come to him everyday but still he knew what my taste was. May be he knows that of every regular customer of his.

I was reminded, as I sipped tea in the “bada wala cup,” of Press Cart of Manipal. Press cart, for those who don’t know, is situated in Manipal between our institute (Manipal Institute of Communication) and Udayavani (a leading Kannda daily) press. It serves mainly the pres workers who work on nigh shift. The shop opens at around 4 in the evening and is open till 2 in the night. Ever evening after classes (as a student and also as a faculty in MIC) we would go sit under the tree (which we called ‘wisdom tree’) and order something to eat and several cups of tea from the press cart and discuss various serious and not so serious matters under the tree sipping the press cart tea. We shared an intimate relationship with the cooks of Press Cart, though we interacted less with them.

Once Shipla (Sunil Sir’s wife) and I were sitting at Press Cart waiting for Sunil Sir to come out of MIC. Shilpa suddenly felt like hacving chakkuli (a fried item round in shape) and asked the cook of Press Cart to get “two” chakkuli. And the cook came towards us and handed over one chakkuli to Shipla and said “he,” pointing towards me,” doesn’t eat chakkuli.” I was surprised that evening to know that the cook at Press Cart did know my taste and also the items which I eat and I don’t. The cook there would never fill the cup completely for Varadesh Sir for he knew that Sir always has only half a cup of tea.

After I resigned from MIC, still I would go to press cart, at times and always the cook there would ask me “where are you these days? Not to be seen around.” And I know that he asks me this not because he lost a customer but because he too, unknowingly, has made me a part of his world. Like I felt the absence of Sharma Ji, the cook of Press Cart too felt my absence.

It interests me as to how these familiar strangers become a part of our life and how we strike a bond with them, to the extent that the absence of one person really matters to the other.

Recently while coming back home I took a cycle rickshaw and as I got down I realized that I did not have the required change but had only a hundred rupee note. I went to the nearby electrical shop and asked if he had two fifty rupee note and his reply was negative. Then I went to the small grocery shop near by from where we (Faizan, Shoaib and I) usually buy bread and noodles. I asked him if he had change for Rs. 100. He said he dint have. I got worried because I dint know what to do and immediately I hear the shopkeeper’s voice. He asks me, “You have to pay the rickshaw fellow is it?” and I nod my head indicating “yes.” The shopkeeper asked me, “how much?” “Twenty,” I said. He pulled is table drawer and gave me a twenty rupee note and said “you can repay me later.” I took the money paid the rickshaw fellow and returned to the shop thanked the shopkeeper and said “I will return the money soon.” With a warm smile, holding my hand, he said “you are like a family member I trust you.” I was moved by the expression “family member” which this shopkeeper, another familiar stranger, used to refer to me.

How did I become his family member? Why should he have given me the money to pay the rickshaw fellow? Why should have the cook of press cart feel my absence and why should have I felt the absence of Sharma Ji? We are all familiar strangers to each other. But something bonds us. This bonding is beyond speech and expression to me.

Musing over the bonding I share with these familiar strangers, I wonder is such a bonding can be struck with shopkeepers of a big shop or a branded shop? Even if we start recognizing each other and pass smile whenever we meet, in the big and branded shops, would we feel each others absence? Would that shopkeeper consider me as his family member?

I guess globalization, which has been contributing a lot to branded shops, has robbed something beautiful from our civilization. But we still have some Sharma Ji in a corner of a road preparing chai, with his heart, for several familiar strangers like me. There are still some like the cook of Press Cart who feel the absence of a familiar stranger like me. There is still a shopkeeper, whose name I do not know, who tells me that I am like his family member. May these small shops survive in the age of globalization. Amen!

03 November 2009

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