It was a face that looked familiar.
We were seated in buses on opposite sides of a busy Mumbai intersection, when I saw the face framed in the barred window. In profile; partly covered with black tresses, aquiline nose, an arched penciled eyebrow and a pout—deliberate? natural?—set in an oval face. And a smile hovering over the red lips. The way models do for a girlie magazine shoot, designers’ calendars’ or a TV spot. A curvy smile, slightly crooked, as an irregular layer of sauce being spread by the vendor on a sandwich toast. Or, like a series of ragged lines, on a paper, drawn by a kid in a hurry to meet deadline of a drawing competition.
The effect was commendable.
It was hot March afternoon. Sweat dripping, I chanced to look out of the window and glimpsed this blur that transformed into a human face for few seconds and as lights turned green, our crowded public buses began moving at the same time.
I looked at her and she looked at me—from a kinetic body and jerky angles—and our eyes locked in for a full fleeting second and then we crossed each other for ever, not to meet again. Two lines running parallel.
I guess she smiled—at me! In an instant, urban anonymity turned into uneasy familiarity, although a fleeting one: Two androids becoming humans in a thrashing sea of faceless humanity. For a second only. An assembly-line commuter, yet mysterious, commuting to some place by public transport, became at that instant, a living being with a history—identical, perhaps?—in a public space with common aspirations and struggles.
I smiled—a faint smile that stretched my pursed tobacco-stained thick lips a bit. Like a bulging grocery bag that cracks at the top. Just a hint of smile at the oddities of life in a South-Asian metro.
A brief glimpse! That broke the dull monotony of commuting in a crowded bus. That feminine smile was unusual—you don’t get hapless commuters smiling these days at the male commuters coming in the opposite direction. In fact, cocooned within, you do not smile at all during the long daily journeys in packed trains or buses.
It is as rare as finding a Dodo at your doorstep. Or, forget the poor Dodo, discovering a house sparrow chirping in your concrete balcony in the vertical column of dark glass-n-marble contraption called high-rise.
You can find gold in Mumbai. Not a smile—unconditional, pure, free and open that makes the wearer and the lucky recipient, a normal being. I know a country chap who, on first visit, smiled at everybody in his brother’s housing society and his gentle smile at the next-door bhabi infuriated her alcoholic husband so much that he bludgeoned the poor out-of-towner to death. It led to so much further trouble—police complaint and further feuds in the society and bloodbath—that the villager vowed never to visit the city again. That goes for smiling in a paranoid city. A norm in a village; a deviation in the hyper-city.
But the warmth of this smile morphed the face into someone known. Here is the underlying principle: Only those folks who know or recognize you are liable to smile at you. Others who do can be treated as too poking or intruding or a stalker! A normal facial expression, wrongly-timed and directed, can make you a threat to some moron hiding in a shell.
This was not the case here. The smile—or its hint—triggered a response at deep subterranean levels. A distant memory moved in a dark abyss. Of a forgotten encounter somewhere, sometime, beyond immediate recall. It was a strange sensation. Trying to give a name to a face and a context; trying to locate that elusive face in a slipping stream of dim memory; trying to fix a moment in the flux of time. Difficult task. Like catching shadows of the flying dark clouds on the desert dunes. Or, trying to store river waters through open palms and fingers.
The face. With a dreamy touch. A smiling face at me. Evoking memories that I could not fix and pin down. One thing was sure. I have seen it. But where? It had a strange quality and appeal. The oval face stood out in the surging multitudes around. Like the hulk of tossing ship in the tidal waves seen from a shoreline. Sure. I had met this person. In Mumbai. In suburbs. In a party. Office. I was trying to translate a moving glimpse into a personal history. The feeling persisted. Grew strong, as the bus hurtled down the angry asphalt of the congested lane in Chembur. Now, it bordered on the déjà vu. The oval face uncannily resembled someone whom I knew but who? I tried to place it but could not, getting jolted by the bus frequently. I recalled the strange face. It was an ordinary face of a middle-class Indian woman, yet it was not. The hovering smile altered its quality. Perhaps, the angle of the fleshy face, slightly inclining to the left, behind the horizontal bars of a stationary bus at a polluted intersection on a humid afternoon, lost in reverie, made it look striking, despite the shared common features. The inclined face. The falling tresses. Maybe the stylish pose of talking on a cell-phone. Or, the very familiar setting made it un-familiar: an unknown woman, sitting in a public bus, bored and lost in the melee of a metro on the roll, framed by a little window, like a mobile outdoor ad for a shampoo or hair-oil product.
Common, yet un-common, in its overall effect on an involved viewer.
Let us talk cinema. The shot has the following elements in it to evoke recognition in the global audiences: A universal metro scene; a common female face, an ordinary traffic experience; yet assuming an extra-ordinary dimension due to the combination of these very elements and the mix forming into an unusual composition, a powerful visual statement. Remember the movie Shall We Dance? The iconic scene where Richard Gere comes to have a glimpse of lost J. Lo in a window of a dance studio from a moving train. A glimpse that changes the life of that lawyer John Clark forever, as well as others. Well, nothing of that kind happened here with me but the effect was something unusual. You might have seen graffiti. Kind of urban graffiti sprawled across an old stone wall of a defunct textile mill in the old teeming sections of the Lalbaugh area, a random act of rebellion, yet changing the ungainly solidity of wall into an underground art—kind of. Or, a setting sun on Marine Drive, against a chafing Arabian Sea, caught by a visiting teen on her cell-phone. Everyday occurrence, yet sublime on the film as a medium.
The same ignored sunset brings money to a painter on his vivid canvas from an art-struck banker. A medium, sometimes, changes our perceptions.
So, commuting, I tried to recall a suitable context to pin down that face into it. To give a past to a stranger who appeared not as a stranger to me at that time and mental stage already benumbed by my daily travel on this heavy route. I tried to rummage through my box of memories but nothing substantial turned up.
I suffer from poor memory.
I cannot recall names and faces. People think it snobbery. Not remembering them. A name is precious to its owner. It is a mini-brand. But I forget names and faces easily. The other day, I ran into a man in a mall and he said, hullo, sir, how are you? And I smiled sheepishly and said, I am fine and quickly moved on, avoiding further risky conversation with him. Till this day, I could not remember who he was.
People say I suffer from amnesia, temporary or otherwise. I do not know. Fact remains I get forgetful and cannot recall most of the human encounters of my life. By this I do not mean that I have got extra-terrestrials as my company. I am just trying to explain. But I think I mirror my society. Most of the company is like a hangover—only a blur of faces and some excruciating morning pain for all the hard partying and harder work.
It is work, work and work. And partying. Then, forgetfulness of those little conversations and fleeting faces. And then stress, oil, obesity, passivity and cholesterol finally kill you early as a deadly mix. “Friends are like stubs of cigarettes, burnt-out stubs, in an overflowing ashtray, in a pub,” a friend who occasionally dabbles in English poetry once famously described us all. “Like dredges of wine left in a wine glass,” another friend had ventured and we all had burst out laughing at this triviality—full of profound thought. How true!
I remember an old colleague crying quietly, during lunch-hour, in his corner kiosk, wiping his tears, his lunch-box unopened. The office was deserted. “What happened?” I asked. Between sobs, the fortyish man blurted, he had lost both his ailing mother and job, the same day and hour. In the evening, he was given the check and there were no farewells to a man who was with us for so long. Corporate culture. You are replaceable by a minute. A dead entry. A forgotten item in a long inventory. The man left; another guy joined. We all continued the daily grind: Computers, coffee breaks, tight deadlines, hurried lunches, long commutes, some TV, then flopping on the bed—to start again. Shall we dance? Not here, in India. Even if you want, you cannot.
We breeze through each other’s life, like a whip of a rain sweeping through an open courtyard—then drying up slowly in harsh sun.
I try to fix up that face but give up. The bus hurtles down now. Traffic is heavy. Honking is loud. We are pressed together like human beings conjoined in a mass.
Where is that colleague?
I cannot recall his contours, tonal quality, hair colour, weight—nothing.
The Greeks were right. We all are drinkers of the River of Lethe. And, suddenly, I felt weightless and floating in the air—as insubstantial.
Yes. I did. In this short reverie, in a packed moving bus, I felt transformed—into a vapour. Uneasy, sweating, jolted, a hot wind buffeting in the face, the crush of bodies encased in fine branded clothes pressing me and boxing me in, I felt evaporating like camphor. Insubstantial. Light. Of no use. A dead man walking who could not recall faces and conversations in a commercial city—himself being erased, sinking into oblivion, on a moving bus.
Sunil Sharma is a Mumbai-based senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 19 published books: six collections of poetry, two of short fiction, one novel, a critical study of the novel, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and one joint poetry collection. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award in 2012. His poems were published in the UN project Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry in 2015. Sunil edits the English section of the monthly bilingual journal Setu published from Pittsburgh, USA. For more details, please visit his blog.