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Remembering Michelle

It’s the day after Diwali, and I am remembering Michelle.

She must be back in California now, after an extended tour of Europe with her husband, Peter. I fondly recall the couple, retirees in their mid-sixties, locking their hands now and then, stroking each other’s fingers as if to reassure their wedding bands that they were there for keeps, talking to each other softly about this and that as we rode in the coach to a distant mountain top, on a cold drizzly morning from Schliersee.

They were the kind who set couple goals for others. ‘When we will cruise into our sixties and go beyond, this is what we should be like too’, I later said to my husband and squeezed his hand.

The Alps revealed itself in layers of morning glow, with its far reaches shimmering in a cloak of an early season snow. The plains were fresh with an over-night rain and what I saw before me as we sped off convinced me that God exists. Call him by any name, see him in any form, feel him by any sense – the truth is, ‘that which creates this’ exists.Even when you deny it, ‘it’ exists as your very denial.

I began to zone out in the humbling thought, feeling grateful for the generous vistas and the supple sentiments they evoked. Beauty in any form can make us misty-eyed, can’t it?

‘Since we are going to spend the rest of the day together, I think we must know each other. Hi, I am Michelle.’ I heard someone say presently.

Jiggled out of my reverie, I saw the lady next to me extending her neatly manicured hand toward me. Surprised, but very pleased, I took it with a smile, and introduced myself. Our nascent acquaintance extended to our husbands as the day wore off, and we banded together as a nice foursome to make a fleeting friendship that one often lets go at the end of a journey.

I am remembering Michelle again today.

It is three months since we moved into this new apartment in Dubai and I barely know anyone in this building. It is not typical of people to talk even when we take the elevator together. Eye contact is rare, and a smile is rarer. A ‘hello’, at the most, if we volunteer.

We are wary, plain wary of making new connections unless it is warranted. Unless goaded into it by a pressing need. We are all gyrating in our own separate orbits, as cosmic objects in a single universe. It is very disconcerting, to say the least.

Two weeks ago, as I entered the elevator which is in the middle of a long corridor, I heard conversations in Hindi amidst the sound of a door closing and locking from the other side of the floor. Thinking someone might be coming for the elevator, I kept the ‘open’ button pressed. Once missed, it takes a long while for the lift to return in this 45 storey building.

I peeped out and asked in the direction of the sound, ‘Are you coming?’

A young, working couple and a cherubic kindergartener appeared and rushed into the lift. The descent to the ground floor was spent in stiff silence. Strangers who had nothing in common, it seemed. I am eager to smile, but you can’t smile unless they look at you and acknowledge your presence in the first place.

This sort of manner having become commonplace among people, with no one to blame except the vagaries of Time, I let it be and save a smile.

‘There is an Indian family on our floor,’ I said to my husband in the evening. ‘I am not sure which flat, but there is one. I think I must meet them.’

A day after Diwali, I patrol the other side of the floor in the hope that I can identify the Indian home amidst the assorted residents. I look for clues and I am not disappointed. A beautiful thoran adorns the doorway of a flat. Spent diyas line the threshold.

Elated, I trot back home, pack some home-made sweets and return. I press the bell. I am not sure what to expect. They were people who didn’t acknowledge my presence on the lift. But I trust the innate goodness of human beings, just as much as I fear their inconsistencies. They may come across as indifferent and cold, owing to their own apprehensions and angst, but they can’t be unresponsive to someone who rings the door bell and greets them on a festive day.

I ring the bell again. The young man I saw in the lift the other day opens the door.

‘Hi, Happy Diwali!’ I exclaim. ‘I am Asha and we live in flat no. 2506. Since we live on the same floor, I thought we must know each other. And Diwali seemed to be the perfect occasion to do that.’

The man is taken by surprise and looks momentarily confused. He turns inside and calls out his wife’s name. It takes a few more seconds for his edginess to wear off and usher me in. I walk in to meet his wife, and I repeat, ‘We live in 2506. Since we share the same floor and we will be neighbours, I thought we must know each other.’

All the seeming resistance that existed the other day in the lift breaks down in a trice as we talk for a quick ten minutes. The conversation includes a passing reference to our common anxieties about connecting with strangers, even if they are our neighbours or fellow-residents in a community. Soon, the child warms up to me too.

The family has a flight to take in the evening, so I don’t hold them up. I give the little chap a high-five before leaving and we promise to catch up upon their return.

I am thinking of Michelle today. With love and gratitude. She taught me by example that we make connections when we put our hand out first and say, we must know each other because we are going to be here together.

Objects in individual orbits. Held together by gravity. This is our fundamental story.

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