The Smiling Stranger

Mukesh Kumar
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Read Time:12 Minute, 42 Second

It was yet another day today, the same as the past three years had been. I got out of my house
at 9 a.m., maintaining the consistency of my departure. After going to the temple, which was
on my way to the railway station, I ended up on the railway platform with all my clothes
wet. It was the sweating season and the source of all energy was on an all-time high.
I went up to the chai shop. The owner saw me and in micro-seconds he handed me over
my regular burning cup. As usual the trains were running on IST or Indian Standard Time,
i.e., fifteen minutes behind the scheduled time. It was a quarter-hour’s journey and ended up
quite comfortably. There’s one thing special in the local trains of Kolkata—the people in
there, standing around you, will never let you get bored. The gossip, the chit-chat, the
debates and the cold fights never fail to entertain. Though, most of the gossip is preoccupied
with ‘Dada’ and ‘Didi’—i.e., cricket and politics respectively.
The journey in the train was at par with a sauna bath, the only difference being that it
wasn’t voluntarily done and I wasn’t enjoying it, of course. Stepping down from the train I
headed towards the nearby bus stop, looking towards the long queue of slow-moving buses.
I was searching for a bus that was empty enough to at least allow me to stand comfortably.
Expecting an empty seat, that too at this hour of day, was at par with expecting a politician
to be non-corrupt. After around ten minutes, I managed to board a semi-empty bus and even
found a corner to stand comfortably in. For a journey from the suburbs to the main city, one
has to cross the mighty Hooghly river. The bus started crossing the Howrah Bridge, a
wonder in itself for the city of joy.
The breeze blowing on the bridge was the only relief for the heat these days, though in
effect it actually acted as a drop of water on a hot frying pan. I was standing near the
window, just behind the driver, facing the crowd at large in the bus. The cool breeze,
nonethless, became a source of some comfort to me as the bus gained speed.
I looked around, as I generally do to observe people, read their faces and capture their
vivid expressions. Looking around, I ended up with nothing interesting to invest time in and
focus on, except one thing in particular. There, in the middle of the bus, was a girl
occupying the window seat facing the great Hooghly.
The breeze was constantly playing with her hair, causing strands to move on and away
from her face. It felt like these strands of hair were playing a piano on her cheeks. She had a
vibrant face, a fair complexion. Her eyes were closed and she was enjoying the breeze. It
looked as if she was in a new world, a world she has always wanted to be in. I was getting
irritated with her hair, which was constantly flying around her face, not allowing me to
observe her. I felt like investing the rest of my day gazing at her. I was drawn to the aura
around her, the aura that she had created, that of love and peace. But this gazing did not last
too long; it ended as soon as she opened her eyes and looked straight towards me. Our eyes
met for a second and I instantly averted my eyes away from hers as I wasn’t interested in
being tagged as a stalker.
Oh God, what a moment that was! I was out of my mind. I had never ever seen such eyes
in my entire life. They were bright as pearls, nicely curved and had deep reserves of
innocence in them. They were doe-like eyes. This hobby of observing people, I say, can
really be risky at times—you can be branded as a loafer from a gentleman in a matter of
minutes.
By then the bus had crossed the bridge and was back on the city’s populated streets,
crawling through traffic once again. New passengers were clambering on to the bus, making
it more difficult to stand in comfort. I tried to keep my eyes away from hers. But there was a
part of me—an inner voice—that was constantly opposing what my mind had decided.
The new passengers soon occupied the space between me and her and I could barely see
her now. The voice within me had won at last; I made up my mind to try my luck once again.
With a few adjustments to my height and inclination, I tried to catch a glimpse of her. She
was looking at her cellphone, a smile playing on her face. I could barely detect any signs of
artificial make-up on her face and still she looked eternally beautiful. Any trace of make-up
would have been washed away with sweat by now. This in turn reflected her purity and
simplicity.
Suddenly, today had become a special day, different from last three years. I was happy! I
was enjoying the bus journey irrespective of the overcrowded bus, the unbearable
temperature and the crawling traffic. I’ll have to admit that she made a real difference to my
daily monotonous life.
Oh, not again! I was caught red-handed, looking at her again. Now I was assured that I
had lost my gentlemanly image completely. I was accusing that voice within me for pushing
me to this; I felt guilty. But all that guilt vanished soon as I found no signs of irritation or
frustration—as one normally expects—on her face; instead I saw a well-concealed smile
this time.
I felt relieved, but still I was not sure about my standpoint. As the old saying goes, ‘A
single hand is never enough to clap.’ The only way I could be sure was to check if she too
was watching me. I hid myself behind the passengers in the bus in such a manner that she
couldn’t see me anymore. I also managed to find a way to keep an eye on her without
making her aware of it. I was happy to get that childish streak back in me.
Going by my plan, for the next few minutes I behaved as if I was least interested in
looking at her. I took out my cellphone and started playing with it to show that I was busy
with some serious stuff. I wasn’t sure whether I was right or not—it may be that I had
misinterpreted the whole thing about her possibly showing interest in me—but I still wanted
to continue with this just to make sure.
From a distance, I kept an eye on her constantly and noticed all her actions. For the first
few moments, there were changes as she was busy with her cellphone. After that, once she
looked towards the place where I had been standing moments ago and instantly went back to
her cellphone again. Then again, after about twenty seconds or so, she looked back at that
place with her cellphone pressed to her ear. Probably that was a fake call, an excuse to look
in my direction, because she put her cell down as soon as she didn’t find me standing there.
I was getting more and more excited as her behaviour was making me more and more
sure about myself. Not finding me there, she now started looking around with a different
excuse each time, making it appear as if she had only been looking at those places
incidentally and not intentionally. I noticed that the frequency of her looking at that vacant
spot where I had been standing had increased, and the curve of her smile had straightened
somewhat.
Her eyes were constantly moving around in search of something in particular and then she
fixed her gaze on something. But what was it? I looked down to see that it was my briefcase.
I had been holding it in my hand throughout, and it was visible to her now. Clearly I’d left a
loophole in my plan. She must have earlier seen my briefcase and that helped her to spot me
now.
In a second she noticed me looking at her from the hideout. This time her eyes moved
away as soon as they met mine, but her face immediately broke into a cute smile. That was
the ‘key moment’. All doubts in my mind were cleared by now. I knew she was interested in
me.
I was happy; I no longer felt guilty. I was no more a stalker, but was merely a party to a
‘two-way arbitrage’. This staring game had now changed into a sort of hide-and-seek.
Everything was going fine, until the conductor came and asked me to pay for my journey. It
was not that I had any problems in paying him, but the interruption of this uninvited guest
reminded me of several things at a time:
The bus was moving at a moderate speed (which I had hardly kept in mind)
I had a destination (which was hardly two minutes from here), at which I needed to leave the bus
She was a stranger … and I was not sure if I would be lucky enough to see her again.
All these days I had been cursing the traffic system for ill-maintenance which
consequently resulted in wastage of precious time, but today, for the first time in my life, I
had no grudges in my heart against the system. Neither was I bothered about the scorching
heat and nor was the overcrowded bus irritating me today. I wished the world somehow
stop right there, so that I need not part with her.
After paying the money, I prepared to get off. A number of thoughts had sprouted in my
mind by now, mainly categorized into two streams—one that said, look at her, capture as
much as possible in your mind so that you can be happy recalling this time; and the other that
said, stop looking at her or else you’ll be feeling sad remembering her, as you might not
meet her again.
I was confused and time was slipping away fast. Stepping down the stairs I was still
debating the two thoughts in my mind. Each was a valid viewpoint in its own way. I had to
take a decision real fast.
Ultimately, I tried to look at it from her point of view—though it was difficult—and came
to the decision that, if she made me smile all that time, if she made me feel good all that
time, then she for sure deserved to smile and feel good too. The driver pulled the breaks and
the bus came to a stop. Getting down there, I looked back at her; she too was looking at me.
I gave her a smile and waved my hand to bid her goodbye. She returned the smile—that was
all I’d wished for at that moment.
Eleven days had passed since I last saw her. During these days, I had thought of
everything that would enable me to meet her again. I was going along with the blueprints
that I had created the very first day after bidding her goodbye. I was trying to recreate that
day—I departed at the same time, took the same train, went by the same route and even went
up to the same bus that I had travelled that day.
In spite of my sheer dedication, nothing positive turned up. I even tried my luck on social
networking sites but that too turned out to be useless as the only specifications I had of her
was the mental image of her that I had carefully stored away—non-retrievable, nonprintable, no ctrl+c or ctrl+v options available. Sitting on my bed, having my tea, I turned
around the newspaper. All it had was the same boring news full of negativity, crime,
corruption and scams all over. Then I came across an open letter posted by a student to the
then honourable chief minister of the state.
In the said letter the student had opposed the latter for making a statement in which the
former was tagged as a ‘Maoist’.
At once, an idea occurred to me! I stood up, opened my laptop and started typing away at
my best speed. About an hour later, I ended up with a short piece titled ‘TO THE SMILING
STRANGER’.
Yes, I was actually up to it, and it was my only hope now. I wrote everything that I had
experienced that day and ended the extract with the statement: ‘I wanna smile again’. Saving
the document I added an email ID at the end for responses. Then I Googled for newspapers
which allowed readers to share their experiences, but ended up empty-handed.
Then, I moved to Plan B. I took my cellphone and dialled a colleague who was then
associated with a reputed city newspaper, that too at a high post. After about fifteen minutes
of requests, inquiries, etc., I finally managed to prove to him that I had not gone insane and
even got his answer in the affirmative. After sending the text via email, I was more than
happy. I kept my fingers crossed.
Next morning I woke up early, went downstairs bought myself two copies of the
newspaper. Reading my column, I felt some positive energy flowing from within. I went to
the office, completed my job real fast and took an early leave. Getting back home, I logged
into my personal email ID. ‘70 new mails’, it displayed. My heart was beating fast as I
started looking into each of them. I was searching for one special email in particular.
It took me about twenty-five minutes to get through all of them. There were about twentyfive spams, twenty-five casual mails from friends and the rest were responses to my article.
I was happy reading the positive responses for my extract but on the other side it was
depressing as the main purpose behind the column remained unfulfilled.
My mind was, in no time, occupied with depressing thoughts. Maybe she did not read it,
or in case she did, maybe she was not interested enough to reply. Ignoring these thoughts, I
made up my mind to wait for another couple of days before settling on any conclusion. I
posted that very extract on all the social networks I was attached to, trying my best not to
leave any stone unturned.
The next three days passed like centuries. I opened my email almost two hundred times.
Even my activity level on social networking sites reached cent per cent, which in the past
had never even crossed the twenty per cent mark.
I was broken—broken into pieces … for a stranger.
This is a step forward from my side. I’m trying my best to reach her. Yes, all this anxiety I
feel is still a part of me, and will be so until this message reaches her. I feel that, if in your
lifetime you have ever experienced something like this or if you had been through any
experience close to it, you would be aware of this anxiety very well.
This whole extract has been written by me to thank that stranger for making me smile, for
making me happy, for making a difference in my daily monotonous life, for soothing me
during my lonely hours, and for helping me rediscover that hidden child in me.
Oh, how can I forget to mention:
‘I wanna smile again.’

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