A wordless encounter triggers musings into matters of the heart.
I love public places. Airports, railway stations, bus terminals... A bunch of strangers lumped together makes for such interesting scenarios. I once heard the American actor Sylvester Stallone say in an interview that if anything bothered him about his celebrity status it was the fact that he could no longer be anonymous in a crowd and watch people. (Other than being a movie star, he’s also a terrific screenwriter.) Since bring a voyeur is an intrinsic part of a writer’s craft, I could fully understand where he was coming from.
Sometimes, though, you are not the watcher; you are the guy smack in the middle.
Sunday, April 14, I was waiting for my flight at the new domestic terminal in Chennai. I was sitting bang in front of a lovely lady, our knees almost touching in the cramped space between our seats. Not wanting to appear rude or improper by staring at her, I was pretending to examine everything except her. Windows, walls, the ceiling, the snack bar...none of which, of course, could hold a candle to a Tamil beauty. (I guessed she was Tamil from what she was talking on her phone.) So my eyes kept sneaking back to her, only to flee at the slightest whiff of being discovered. In the end, I stuck a newspaper in front of my nose to find the day’s news just as ineffectual in deflecting my attention and spent the rest of our time together stealing looks at her, while pretending to read the newspaper.
Now does something like this only happen to guys who write columns about making out in secondhand cars? Certainly not. It is a depressingly familiar situation for countless generations of men, and, hence, constantly recycled in stories where it doesn’t seem to lose any of its lustre, despite being repetitive and unoriginal. Most men have experienced something similar and relate it to it instantly as do, for that matter, several women who have been at its opposite end.
If things would have ended with me stealing looks at her from behind the newspaper, I would have boarded my flight with a wishful sigh and buried the memory somewhere in the depths of my mind with a regretful shake of the head. But it did not. As it turned out, her flight was announced before mine. As she rose and began walking to her gate, I finally shed my pathetic pretence of reading the newspaper and gazed at her retreating back. Just before disappearing inside her gate, she suddenly turned around and threw me a shy smile. That smile was like a knife through my heart. You miserable loser, I told myself. All you needed was to summon a tiny bit of courage. An attempt at a conversation that would break the ice and, who knew, you could be leaving Chennai with her phone number in your cellphone and the promise of a heart-to-heart chat later that day. And then who knows...
Do only long-haired bookworms who traffic in words get to feel this way? Of course not. Every kind of male from eight to 80 has gone through something similar and knows, only too well, that awful sinking feeling that emanates from blowing an opportunity at romance. Which is why several versions of this experience, too, continue to resonate in stories.
So you see how powerful the familiar can be. Writers are often told to gravitate away from it. Escapism is the buzzword and, for that reason, writers are often urged to shed the everyday for the exotic. To seek to immerse the reader in an ocean of fantasy that will take him or her as far away from the familiar as possible. But you don’t have to do that. The familiar does not have to be mundane. It can be dressed up and presented in ways that make it just as gripping as anything fantastic. And what is more, unlike fantasy, you don’t have to work hard to enthral the audience to bring them into the story. The reader attaches to the familiar almost instantly, because it is so relatable.
If this were fiction, then the lady and I will surely meet again. We have to for the story to progress. Life, however, is not fiction, and chances are that I will never see her again. So I must put our encounter down as a missed opportunity and use the episode in any way I can in my writing.
But then again, at times, fact can be stranger than fiction. The unlikely does happen. So who knows, maybe she will read this and...