Monday, February 15, 2010

Conversation with a stranger

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She died when I was 15. I distinctly remember the day when the doctor came in, checked her pulse, and pronounced her dead. In a normal world (if there is such a thing) it would be easy for anyone to accept the death of someone like my grandmother -- an 87 year old woman, with arthritis and other such 'acceptable' illness that comes with age. But not to me. She was the only person whom I knew at such proximity to always fight the odds and do good. She was a wife at 13 and mothered 12 children in a span of 25 years. She was in school only till the 4th standard, but spoke English with such flourish that she always left my foren friends astound. Shakespeare, Keats and Chaucer was no stranger to her either. Anyway, the purpose of this post is not to tell you how great a woman my grandmother was; That would be attempting to do the impossible.

A week before my grandmother's death, she told me something. She told me that there are some things one never learns but always knows, and some things one can never unlearn. It sounded like a warning/advice and I was a little surprised because she wasn't the kind to give advice (Yeah, she was nothing like others of her generation). A confused teenager that I was then, I never understood the depth, beauty and relevance of what she told me. It's safe to say that I almost forgot about it after a few days.

A few days back I met this woman at the theater. We were both waiting backstage for the lead characters to step out of the changing room. After a fabulous performance that commanded a 3 minute standing ovation, it was strange that there were just the two of us waiting backstage. Then again, I digress.

The woman was wearing black trousers and a royal blue, cowl-necked top. With some trendy silver beads thrown around her neck, and her hair (most of it) held together by a plain clutch clip, she was stylish, but not 'jhantak' (If you don't know what that means, say it aloud. You'll get it). We were waiting for a good fifteen minutes or so, and still no sign of the cast. I was scratching at the scab of a week old wound on my left elbow when she tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around.

"Hi"

"Hey"

"What's the time like?" (What a fine Brit accent. Hugh Grant. Yes. So cool.)

"Oh.. Uhm.. Just a minute" I grabbed my BB out and realized that I hadn't included Eastern Time to be displayed on my widget. I took note of the Singapore local time, quickly did the math and said "I think it's between 8:00 and 9:30 pm. I couldn't be sure" Now I don't know why I didn't just say that I'm not carrying a watch, or that I don't know or just proximated and said "around 8:30".

She smiled, and said "Now thats a first!"

A nice conversation ensued. She turned out to be quite a talker and told me almost everything about her. But not in a creepy way; it was like reading her FB profile -- job, where she stays, hobbies, relationship status, book she is reading currently, global warming, Dylan, The Beatles, favorite movies, and so on -- except her name. She seemed to know a lot about English literature, talked about her childhood, how Thames was the reason why she got interested in poetry, and so on. I mumbled something now and then as well. The cast finally came out, and spent about 20 minutes talking to us, but turned down my new friend's request to pose for a picture. Someone came in a few minutes later and told the male lead that his cell phone was ringing off the hook* and that he better answer it. We bid goodbye to both of them and started walking down the flight of stairs towards the exit. There was silence between us until we reached the main gate, and then she held out her hand and said,

"It was nice talking to you. I'm Paro, by the way. What's your good name?" There was a moment of surprise and I'm sure it showed on my face. Here I was, thinking she is a pukka Brit, and now we share the same Indian name? (Paro is also a Japanese robot)

"Oh. Heh. My name is Parvathi, but my friends call me Paro"

Laughter

"Have you been to India?" I didn't want to sound rude by asking her if she was of Indian origin.

"No. But my mother is from India. She ..." Turns out her mother was from a small southern state called Cairla (Kerala) and had immigrated to Britain to live with her extended family after the death of her mother's parents. She met her father there, fell in love and got married. Her real name was Parvathi too, named after her mother who died at childbirth.

"I don't think I've a single Indian bone in me. I wasn't brought up to believe in Indian gods, was never in the company of Indians or anything of that sort"

"Hmm. I see."

Hiatus.

A taxi pulled up next to us and asked if we wanted a ride. She said she lived a few blocks away so she'd prefer to walk. We said goodbye and parted. I kept thinking how one's surroundings and upbringing plays such an important role in building character. I always thought that a lot of things that are characteristic to Indians was passed on because it was in their blood. This woman here was the first one I ever met who was the absolute opposite.

As the car drove into the lane and waited for the signal to clear, I watched Paro walk away. She was texting, didn't see an old woman walking towards her, and bumped into her. The old lady was holding on to her leg with a pained expression. Paro swiftly turned around, apologized and then did something that I took great interest in. She touched the old woman's hand and then touched her chest. This is a classic Indian gesture of showing respect when asking for forgiveness. I laughed out loud. I felt a sense of pride and happiness. I suddenly remembered what my grandmother told me, and had this strange feeling; like I had eaten a good meal, or filled a glass up to the brim with water or finished cracking a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle.

She could be a Brit in every sense, but she asks for forgiveness in Malayalam.

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