Hello, stranger

“Just send me a message if you need help.”

That was the last thing I told her. She was neither a friend nor a family member—just a colleague. I wouldn’t have met her if I hadn’t stopped by a friend’s seating location at work—she’d joined their team a few months ago and was, along with my friend and a few others in their team, expecting to attend her first corporate event in the United States. They were all preparing for the visa interview—filling up forms, double checking spellings and passport numbers, cross-checking each other’s details, and raining me with questions of what to do and whatnot.

It was amusing. I’d gone through the same nerve-wracking experience two years ago when I first applied for a visa. And so I was only too happy to help out these first-timers.

Every one of them was excited beyond words, making plans, discussing which places to visit, and what to eat on the plane. Tiring is an understatement when referring to the journey from India to anywhere in the US—it involves around 22 hours of flying time and additional transit times. No first time traveller has any idea of how they’d endure it. And every far fetched idea they do have evaporates when the plane takes off. I saw the same conundrum in their eyes. I could understand of course—growing up in a developing country, the only thing you want more than to visit the United States is to visit the United States.

But she wasn’t like the others in the lot. Although she, too, was excited, nervous, and earnest in her effort, she had more than blatant thrill in her eyes. She clung to it as if she couldn’t believe she deserved it.

She died in a car accident yesterday.

She should’ve attended her visa interview sometime this week. I’m sure she would’ve got through despite all her fears of not. I’m sure that would’ve cherished the jet-lagging journey and discovered a different side of herself in the new found land. She would’ve brought back more than candy for her friends—she would’ve brought back countless memories and an endless ocean of inspiration for her work. For she was an artist—one who inhales the world with new eyes, expelling a brighter, moe hopeful, version in a consortium of colours.

I never got to know her as a person. And yet, I felt a deep sorrow descend on me when I heard of her death. She wasn’t a friend or a family member—just a colleague I met by sheer chance.

It’s strange how much we under-appreciate the impact of people in our lives. We seldom realise how much we retain from even a brief conversation. I spoke to her only about three times in total. She wanted advice to clear the visa interview. She wanted assurance, and I was there at the right time to tell her it’ll all be fine. However, every time I spoke to her, I spoke from the top of my head—sharing my experience, my lessons, and my joys. Those weren’t deep, soul searching conversations, but they swirl in my head, haunted now, still in shock that the person whose pupils dilated upon hearing my adventures is no longer alive.

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Spring cleaning

These days are difficult times
bidding farewell to the old ones

clothes I’d bought years ago
in impulsive shopping sprees
laying waste below newer ones
collecting stains and smells
as well-aged, handmade cheese

metallic keychains, rusty buttons,
identity symbols of a younger self
school life—a life now long gone
yet bloom afresh, the memories
of squabbles for those collectibles

souvenirs and FLAMES analysis
scribbled texts, empty notebooks
remaining shadows of a shady past
of classes missed—teachers pissed
some faded moments photographed

in dusty shelves surviving in silence
discarded memories are for ages

You’re invited!

“Is that what you’re wearing for your friend’s wedding reception?”

All the world asked me when I emerged in a long turquoise top and brown leggings. My blouse had a mild embroidery with buttons and a princess line that extended from my shoulder to my knees. It’s my go-to attire for any social interaction my parents deem significant, and I have a duty not to embarrass them. I had no makeup on and had tried to flatten my short flyaway hair.

“Is that how you go to a wedding?”

I can understand their shock and disapproval. After all, everyone who asked me that question has preconceived notions of how you should appear in wedding photographs: While the bride and groom should be the centre of attraction, those standing on either side of the couple should be just as glowing and glamorous. Acceptable clothing for women includes a long skirt with a gold stone studded blouse or a traditional South Indian silk or silk-lookalike saree embroidered in gold strings, both paired with a generous amount of golden jewellery—necklaces, earpieces, rings, bangles, and anklets. Men often stick to full suits, or long silk or silk-lookalike dhoti also called veshti (that resembles a women’s straight skirt), and a crisp shirt to go with it. Golden chains, rings, and bracelet are a given of course. Over the years, people adhere less to the clothing conventions, but synthetic jewellery still has a significant presence.

We’re all raised with cultural beliefs we follow because it’s a tradition. Sometimes we follow it blindfolded that we don’t even realise or consider the point of such habits. My classmate had invited me to her engagement party. We hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in over four years, and yet she remembered our friendship and I wanted to react in kind. That’s how I justify going for the wedding, despite detesting anything to do with lavish ceremonies. Not only was I placing myself in an uncomfortable scenario but I also had to travel four hours on a bus to get there. Wearing heavy jewellery and silk clothes on a stifling journey during the peak of summer was the least of my concerns. Most people would arrive early, check in to a hotel or a friend’s place and then “get ready” for the function. I, on the other hand, chose to arrive in casual comfortable, yet decent, clothing.

In my book, practicality always takes precedence over traditions. Why should we go to such lengths to be uncomfortable?

The times

We’d walk alongside each other
hand in hand, sharing a cookie
after class and during breaks
chatting away making no sense
oh, well those were the times
when life was made of exams
and score cards meant the world
when at the end of a long week
we’d rummage our bags for change
for left overs from our allowances
taking a bite off of the same
ice cream cone or a warm pastry
coating lips with smeared sauce

Oh, how times have now changed
all grown up and out in the world
selling lies and making money
engaged in talks with the board
discussing the course of many a life
once scrambling for a snack in class
now scorning at those frivolous times
then school was our meeting hub
and all classmates friends forever
now weddings be our meeting hub
and all people who were friends once

Old friends

I’ve known V for over five years. When I walked into the campus scared and nervous, she assured me everything would work out well. She guided me to the restroom so I could wash the sweat and tiredness from my face after a 45-minute commute in the dusty local trains of the city.

Everything was new—the scorching heat of the city, the slums on its edge, the barrenness that exemplified the smoke issuing from vehicles so old they shouldn’t even be on the street. It was my first time in the city, and I knew within minutes that I’d have a hard time living here, if at all. But I was also eager for the job interview to go well—it was an excellent opportunity, and I didn’t want to mess it up. And V’s simple gesture was a tremendous comfort.

I got the job, and since, the company’s employee count had grown over four times. V and I, however, are still here. It’s strange, but although V was so nice to me on that first day, we never became close friends. We were in different teams, under different supervisors. Our roles were different—she a developer and I a marketing writer. We shared no common whatsoever except an employer.

However, if we ever cross each other’s paths, we’d smile, and I’d oblige to some small talk.

That was the problem—the small talk. I’ve grown less interested in crossing paths with V not because I developed a disliking to her, but because not everyone’s satisfied with just a smile—the inherent human quality to frolic in frivolous conversations stretches awkwardness to new extents.

And now every time I see her dread rises from deep within me, and my mind entertains thousands of possible topics we could discuss, each punier than the previous.

And that’s why I prefer a longer route if I can avoid running into old friends like V. I don’t want to humour meaningless exchanges over other people’s careers when I could just sit and stare at space.

Ever felt that way about someone?