The day was 25th July 2008. The place was Colaba, Mumbai. It had been raining heavily for 3 days.

I was staying with a cousin in her room which she was renting at Colaba. Perish the thought of me being able to afford the rent of a TOWN pad. Let’s just say I am lucky in my choice of cousins. 🙂

My cousin was in Bangalore and I was alone in her room. I had been house bound for two days. Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon of the third day, I remembered suddenly that I didn’t have my kids with me and so need not hold myself back in an effort to be a good example to them. I wish I could tell you how pleased I felt at the thought of being able to go for a walk in the rain. I decided to walk to the Gateway of India and watch the sea and get very very wet. 😀

By the time I came out of the house, it had stopped raining. The sky was covered with thick black clouds which looked swollen with tons of water. I knew it was just a question of time when they’d start decanting the stuff in barrels. I reached the Gateway of India and stood leaning against the parapet. The sea was restless and foaming. The only colors of the natural world were the mud of the sea and the dull grey of the clouds. There wasn’t too much light. I was happy to be out alone… somehow the weather without matched the weather within.

Barely ten minutes later, there came a man with a string, a fish hook and some tiny fish to use as bait. He cast his line and waited patiently. I got engrossed watching three Iranian kids gambol about while their nanny tried- ineffectually- to keep them from rolling in and out of muddy puddles. Their squeals of pleasure were so much fun. Suddenly the man with the fish line began pulling in his line rapidly. Within minutes he had a big fish (nearly 3 feet) writhing in its death throes on the pavement. The kids stopped their playing and stared, at once fascinated and revolted. Pity for the beautiful creature was writ large on their faces. Their nanny gathered them and took them away.

After the fisherman had left with his booty, peace reigned once again by the road. It had still not begun to rain. I leaned over the parapet and looked fixedly lost at the churning water of the sea below. There were hardly any people about. I saw from the corner of my eye that a youngish chap stood some 3-4 feet away from me. I don’t know why, but I was sure he would talk to me. When he moved closer, I was certain. Sure enough, he did.

“That fish…”, he began, almost as if he was talking to himself. I ignored him, pretending I hadn’t heard him and continued staring at the water.

“Did you see how it gasped…? The kids were really shocked weren’t they…? I suppose it is one thing to eat meat and another thing to see the animal alive in all its beauty and vitality knowing it will become tomorrow’s meat.” He fell silent. I ignored him, still hoping he will be discouraged and will go. I wanted him to realize that he was being a pest and that I didn’t talk to strange guys, being a good girl. 😀

“That song you were singing… it s a beautiful song. Though you were a bit off-key.” Now this was too much…! I mean, come on man, I didn’t ask for a critical analysis, did I…? I turned around and glared at him hoping to shrivel him into a toad. But I think somewhere over the years I seem to have lost the knack  of going into my grand dame act. He gave me a grin fit to break his jaw and like a donkey I grinned back at him. I mean… I would have looked so mean if I hadn’t…!

From that moment, the thing became thick with bonhomie. He told me he was from Kolkata and was into his family business of clock repairing. He had been doing that work from the age of fourteen. I told him I was a trainer and had been doing it for twenty years. Naturally then, I asked him his name. With that question, I seemed to have made him conscious of himself. His smile came off. He seemed to shrink into himself. There was an expression of self-deprecating bitterness on his face. Then he grinned again while his eyes belied his mirth. They remained pools of helpless pain. “I don’t have a name”, he said, “I am a Muslim.”

Mind you, he wasn’t trying to accuse me. He just said it the way a child would say it when unjustly accused of something… and when he has got used to the accusation… though the cause of the accusation remains a mystery to him. “Yes”, I said. “You are a Muslim, I am a Hindu. My name is Dagny, and your name is…?”

His grin came back shining from his eyes. “Salim”, he said happily. I held out my hand and said, “Hello Salim.” With a look of shocked wonder, he timidly took my hand and said, “Hi. But I didn’t get your name..!”. I laughed and told him not to worry… people didn’t get it easily for a while. I repeated it for him a couple of times. After that, we talked for some more time until my bad knee began to protest. I told him I was going home because I couldn’t stand anymore.

He said, “Let’s go to Nariman Point. There are seats there.” I know he said it  on an impulse. After he said it he realized how inappropriate it was for HIM to have suggested something like that. He was terribly embarrassed. I think he was even more shocked when I agreed instantly. I don’t mind telling you that by the time we were sitting in the cab I was kicking myself soundly wondering what the hell I thought I was DOING…! I was sure I had made the biggest mistake of my life. Consequently, we were both embarrassed and quiet on the way. Before I finished killing myself though, we reached Nariman Point.

The wind was blowing with a fine thin drizzle. The clouds looked even more swollen and at places they seemed to have merged with the sea. The waves were creating their usual din, their spray mingling with the drizzle making us wetter still as we sat on the parapet. There were many people there, but as is usual in Mumbai, everyone was alone in the midst of all that noise and bustle. It was almost five by then.

For the next four hours Salim and I talked. I mean, he talked and I asked a zillion questions. He told me about his siblings, about his deep regret that he was too careless to study when his Ammi told him to. He left school after he failed in 9th and joined his father in his shop. To his immense surprise and pleasure he found that he had a natural inborn love for wall clocks. He proudly told me there was NO clock in the world he could not repair… he was that good. I know he was telling the truth.

He told me about his girl-friend. She had married another guy a year back. He would NOT say a word against her, but just said he was sure she took the right decision by not marrying him. After all he said, he was not worthy of her. When I asked him if it hurt, he looked at me with the same look of helpless pain that he had in his eyes when he refused to tell me his name. His eyes were dry but his voice was thick when he said, “It hurts. But to have made her unhappy would have hurt even more. I am relieved she is happy now. That’s the point of loving someone isn’t it ma’am…? I was speechless with the wonder of wisdom coming from him… specially because he said it so matter of factly.

I talked about his friends. In a tone of utter befuddlement he said, “I want to ask you something. Why is it that my friends make fun of me…? Why don’t they understand when I try talking to them…? Why must we always drink beer when we meet and only talk about the girls they have been ogling at…? I am so bored with all that. But what is funny is that they are equally bored with me.” I asked him what his friends would say if he told them about the way we had met and talked. The poor thing went RED in the face.

“Don’t tell me, I know what they would say. I asked you only to make you aware of the contrast between you and them. I am sorry to say this, but I think it is time you accepted that your friends will always find you a freak. They won’t really understand what you talk of. They will always call you a bloody fool for not taking advantage of ‘opportunities’ of all kinds. They would probably laugh until they are blue in the face when they see you refuse to take advantage of another person. You decide what it more important for you- to be at ease with yourself or to gain acceptance and approval of your friends.”

I then talked of his profession. I can honestly say that I was really impressed with his zeal and passion he had  for his work. I asked him what was the TOP position one could win in his profession. He told me it was to be able to repair Swiss clocks. We discussed the thing threadbare. He told me of the apprenticeship programs the top Swiss watch-makers ran. Programs with a very strict admission process but which were free. By the time it was 8 o’clock, we had worked out a plan by which he could prepare enough to be admitted to that course in a year’s time. What surprised me was that he knew ALL about the world market… he knew the best companies… and he had already selected the ONLY company he would do his apprenticeship in. Do I need to tell you how proud I was of that boy… even today as I write this…?

At 8.30pm I told him I needed to go home. When we stood up to look for a cab, he stopped me. We stood facing each other and he said, “I want to thank you, but I won’t  do it  today. In all my life no one has talked to me the way you have talked to me this day. I am a stranger to you. You need not have wasted so much time with me. I will show my gratitude by making you a promise. Please don’t think I am making this promise lightly. All the while we have been talking, this promise has been taking shape in me.

“Ten years from today, I will call you. I will come and pick you up in my own Mercedes and I will take you to my own flat in Andheri. There you will be served dinner by my beautiful wife. Then I will take you to my own shop nearby which will be filled with the rarest Swiss clocks. After that I will take you back to your home and THEN I’ll say thank you. But only then. Wait for that day… will you…?”

I had begun to cry by then… just like I am crying now. “How will you find me ten years from now… who knows where I’ll be…?” I tried to discourage him. Scared at the thought of holding a promise as big as he was making. Or maybe I was just trying to check his resolve…? I really couldn’t say.

He said, “The God that brought you to me today will tell me where you are then. Don’t worry about it. I will not either. I only know that I have a lot of work to do and I had better begin doing  it.”

There was nothing to say after that. He took me back to Colaba and dropped me in the busy market, refusing to know where I lived. He never asked for my cell number. He still hadn’t managed to learn my name… it was still difficult for him to say it.

I am not going to talk about the way my boss got annoyed with me when, in the grip of the most intense euphoria of my life, I related the incident to him. I won’t tell you how annoyed he was with me for ‘mixing’ with an undesirable element. But I WILL tell you that he threatened me. He told me to stop doing such politically incorrect things. He said he didn’t like to work with people who crossed his boundaries and annoyed him that way. I laughed in his face and told him he was a bigoted little runt. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t handicapped by being raised like a lady. He surely was clamoring for THE salute. You know, the one in which one of the fingers play the central character…?  Then I told him where he could shove his silly job and BANGED out of his pretentious office. The poor sod..!

It has been nearly two years since I met Salim. There are eight more to go. I wonder if his wife will make some biryani for me… I love it really.


Writer’s Note: This is a true incident with no embellishments and not a trace of imagination.


Written on: 6th Mar 2010

Five Hours With a Stranger