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Strangers in the night
I almost cried on his shoulder, " says Sulekha Choudhury, talking about the stranger she met on the Munichbound train from Erlangen, Germany. "I'd always loved sitting by the window, gazing at the idyllic countryside whizzing past, " she smiles. But on that particular day she hoped for a friend to whom she could pour her heart out. There were only three other passengers in Choudhury's compartment and they were immersed in their books. "Just then, this guy suddenly looked up, smiled and asked if I was from Latin America. When I told him I was from India, he was thrilled. He told me he'd spent six months travelling around India as a tourist. He even remembered the song Aal iz well... I guess that's when an instant connect happened, " Choudhury says. Once the conversation started, "it was like I was talking to a long lost friend. And when he asked me if I was married, I almost started crying, " says Choudhury, who was still recovering from a breakup at the time.
"When I told him that I was facing problems in my relationship, he didn't ask for details. But from the tone of his voice and the understanding look in his eyes, it was evident he understood my pain. Of course, I did tell him how my then boyfriend had walked out on me. " Probably in a bid to show empathy to a fellow sufferer, Gerard (" my Munich train friend" ) told Choudhury about the problems he'd been facing. "His girlfriend was five months pregnant but was still not convinced about marriage. I guess he must have coaxed her into marrying him by now, " says Choudhury. Despite sharing intimate details of their lives, the two did not exchange phone numbers or email IDs. "We were like two very good friends just for that short span of time. But strangely, neither of us felt the need to meet again. I guess we'd poured our hearts out to each other so much that meeting again would have made us feel awkward - that's how I see it now, " says Choudhury. "And when we got off in Munich, he gave me a hug and just said, Aal iz well."
Fashion designer Madhu Jain remembers meeting "one of the kindest gentlemen" on a flight to New York. "The advice he gave me is something I'll always cherish. It's not that I couldn't have tackled the problem myself - but talking to someone who doesn't know you, your background, helps give you a very different perspective."
Way back in 1908, in an essay titled The Stranger, German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel wrote that a stranger enjoys the benefits of objectivity, non-stereotypical thinking and nonconformism. Strangers are the 'outsiders' who can be assigned roles that no other group member can play (such as advisers or mediators), because they are believed to be able to attain a level of objectivity that regular members cannot reach. They can, therefore, be better judges and sometimes even personal confidants. Adds consultant psychiatrist Dr Avdesh Sharma, "When we meet a stranger on, say, a long journey or holiday, we instinctively try to gauge a level of comfort with him/her. Of course, the person has be interested and be willing to talk to you about issues that interest you or your problems."
Aruna Paliwal, who once had to spend a few weeks at the Ayurvedshala in Kotakkal, Kerala, recalls how in the "chawl-type accommodation" friendships with total strangers helped in the healing process. "It doesn't matter what background you come from, everyone there has a problem. So they share their apprehensions, worries and sorrows and just have sympathy for each other. " Paliwal's 'neighbour' who was there for her daughter's treatment would often walk in just for a good cry - as she had to put up a brave front in front of her daughter and needed someone who'd understand what she was going through. "I, on my part, too needed an understanding person who could understand my pain and worries about my arthritis - stuff that I couldn't share with my children. Not because my kids wouldn't understand, but because I wouldn't want them to feel their mom is weak or too worried about her problems. There's no such embarrassment in front of someone who doesn't really know you, " Paliwal adds.
"Yes, a stranger has the advantage of not just being non-judgmental, " says Dr Sharma, "but also of not having any axe to grind with you. Your identity doesn't matter to him - he/she is unlikely to put it up on Facebook for the world to see. Strangers often become good listeners and 'pillars of strength' for the time spent together. " But not every stranger can be one whom you can open your heart out to. "These things happen by chance, " says Dr Sharma.
Many regard such 'encounters' as American psychiatrist Brian Weiss says, "for the working out of debts and responsibilities. A recognition of souls. " Media person Ambica Pathy talks of "bumping into this kind, elderly gentlemen a few times on different flights. It's strange how I've spoken to him about stuff I wouldn't talk so candidly about with my friends (for fear of ridicule), like my phobias and apprehensions about my work and relationships. With a stranger you have the advantage of anonymity and the belief that the person will not judge you or squeal on you. It's like a strange, unwritten rule between strangers - thou shalt keep all secrets. "
140 CHARACTERS TO THE RESCUE
On Twitter, you can tweet about anything and, almost always, there's someone listening. There are people who tweet about stressful days at work, a family fight, or sometimes even the death of a close one. "When my dad passed away, I tweeted about it. Not for 15 minutes of fame, but because I knew it would give me strength, " says Harshad Sharma, a photographer. Sharma received dozens of reply tweets consoling him. Sharing the moment with his followers gave him emotional relief. "I was with my family and on Twitter together. People's replies gave me the strength to carry out all formalities without falling apart. "
Real estate consultant Pankaj Ahuja says the microblogging site provides a platform where people can vent. There have been times when his timeline has thrown up tweets from people who are going through all sorts of stress. "Once someone I was following tweeted about how he couldn't study. He sounded extremely demotivated and was going on about how he had flunked the exam previously, " says Ahuja. "I tweeted back at him with some pep talk and a 'forget about the past, start studying' message. " Ahuja believes conversations in 140 characters are enough to provide support to people on the edge.
Users like 24-year-old Ritika Darira believe tweeting online when emotionally distressed is sometimes easier than discussing the problem with friends. "Most of my followers are people I don't hang out with so they aren't judgemental, " says the social media professional. "And there's always someone ready to console or pacify you. "
Entrepreneur Sandeep Saxena explains how the Twitter India community is always ready to help. "You'll get help from strangers when you need it the most, " he says. He compares the community to passengers who commute together on the Mumbai local train every day. "You don't know their names, but know their faces. And when you're in trouble, they'll surely help you."
Of course there are those who can't afford to tweet in stream-of-consciousness style because their position or profession doesn't allow them that luxury. For instance, lawyer Amith Chandran created a separate account to tweet about things that make him angry. It allows him to express himself in a space where he knows at least someone is listening.
- MAHAFREED IRANI
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