by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
Last week I ran into a faintly familiar face and looked at him quizzically as he said, “You asked a good question yesterday. At the talk.” I thanked him, we muttered names; I don't think I heard his name, and I don't think he caught mine. We exchanged a sentence in a bakery of some repute and then went our opposite ways. I felt suitably flattered; the feeling lasted for an hour.
One could argue that the politics of this encounter lie in prolonging its affect without ever completing its narrative. After all, they tell me that the beauty of the fleeting encounter lies in its imminent disappearance. All narratives as we well know, are already rigged, and the novel, as we are told again and again, has been long dead. (Don't believe any of it). This man that I will never see again, this woman who I will not call. Futures, possibilities, rumours, closures, openings, continuations, none need ever bother except to open oneself to these delicious punctuations. But still, aren't some chance encounters also the beginning of long fantasies? And hence I think about the politics of the chance encounter. A glance here, a smile there, a blink-and-you-miss-it moment participating in no pre-determined destiny and yet one that has the possibility of solidifying into fate (never ill-fatedness).
In her beautiful book Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant calls this a “situation”, “a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amidst the usual activity of life.” In Berlant's words, this is “a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, a sense of the emergence of something in the present that may become an event.” I therefore understand vaguely that one shared stop in a present continuous time-frame adds to the je ne sais quoi of daily life, staving the disenchantments of modernity, holding at bay my certain knowledge that nothing will happen today. After all, how would we live life if we were to actually believe that nothing will happen today? So the chance encounter punctuates such hope, delivering small bits of evidence that guarantee the possibility of that event, the one event that will deliver us all.
Metropolitan life, indeed all of modern life, as many will testify is staged against the tedium of constant movement, routine life, and excessive stimuli. It is a contrary set of movements. On the one hand, one needs normalization. My bed, my toothbrush, my day, my night. And on the other, a burst of the extraordinary. It is a battle to feel, but not feel too much. A need to live in this familiar world, while rendering it both unnecessary and unfamiliar. When I was a child, all summer vacations seemed to be training camps in making manifest the art of the unfamiliar. Most of this education happened on the great Indian railway journey. Travelling to the beat of a lazily drumming train for a whole twenty four hours, sharing food with strangers, exchanging notes on life details, hopes, fears, and ending the journey with phone numbers and postal addresses, I learnt early on to participate in the joy of small meetings. The small duration of these acquaintances varied inversely with their intensity, and so one looked forward to the coming and going as much as to being somewhere else.
Kent Johnson's strange and sensate collection of poems I Once Met reads the poet's life as a series of encounters with other poets, critics, writers. A few years ago, reading this book on a long train journey trotting along sleepy stations, vast rocky plains, and many almost cities, I thought long and hard about the many encounters of my varied train journeys and realized with some sadness that I no longer enjoy them. For that matter, I hardly ever travel by train. In adulthood, airports and security detailed plane journeys create my encounters. As a result, they are infrequent, smaller, and counter-intuitively less intense. But daily life is also longer in adulthood. So often, in need of suddenness, unexpected meetings and situations, I travel. And travel generates encounters.
If I were to remember my meetings Johnson-like, I would have to admit that nobody remotely famous populates these fragments that I would some day like to write down in miniscule detail. But I remember many of them. In San Francisco one night, the driver of the shared cab told me it was his birthday and how he had splurged on a thousand dollar fur coat. We sang together, I wished him well, and he wished me safe travels. I remember the back of his head; he had dark brown hair. In a railway station somewhere in Europe, I experienced a strong sugar craving even as I ran for the train. The Turkish storeowner gave me a chocolate because he said he liked people from India. He wore a green t-shirt and had the kindest smile. He waved me on as I scurried for change. A man on a bus in the middle of Texas clad in red from head to toe guessed my age and told me that I looked old. He then foamed at the mouth and told me not to worry because it happens. At a bus stop somewhere in the world, a gentleman in yellow trousers, and an elderly lady in trainers flanked me as we waited for the never-arriving bus. Together we rocked to the loud music from the gentleman's iPod. He had his eyes shut and couldn't see us. We laughed at him and rocked to his beat. We must have made a pretty sight.
Throwaway sentences, conspiratorial sentences, just-in-time smiles, gestures standing in for language, stories hinted at, lives collectively acknowledged; in the middle of endless travel, one craves the random connection. My saddest moments when away are when I travel and stare outside into lit homes. I imagine people warm, and chatting, and waiting dinner, and am always rendered momentarily despondent and angry at my own need to travel. In these times, the encounter is all that stands between my melancholia and life. The strange loneliness of being far from home in a situation that one has engineered is paradoxical, but nevertheless sad. Sometimes, a kind person sensed my loneliness and offered a smile or two as temporary scaffolding to my temporary state of loss and longing. Sometimes, one of us was lonely and at other times, the other. Very often, we were all okay and merely staging conversation.
For many years, I was a graduate student in the US. The secret about this life, this urban American life that nobody ever articulated to me was about it being constituted by loneliness. Yes, we hear about it and yes, it's talked about, but nobody ever tells you how it feels. Even as it is deeply felt, it must also be deeply buried. In the process of learning this code and attempting to prevent its frequent hauntings through alcohol, work, activity, and lists, I was frequently saved by people on the bus who spoke to me as long as I looked at them.
Sometimes I'm beset by a deep and dark sorrow that life will in the end merely be a series of such encounters that fulfill a temporary purpose but do not allow for real and lasting connection. This difference between the real and the temporary, alas and alack, comes too deeply divided in my head.
How does one return to daily life? And how does one manage these contrary impulses? Perhaps the chance encounter reminds us that ordered life is a bit of a fiction. Sometimes things happen, and sometimes they don't. But we meet people, and we manage common humanity. We show kindness, we offer compliments, and for an affordable moment, we manage connection. Yet, the liberating potential of these moments seems to be in walking away. Our stories end in that moment. Re-reading I Once Met, I was greatly moved by Johnson's series of what seemed to be seamless encounters. One would imagine Johnson to have been both born wise and to have continually been sitting around with a notepad, waiting and watching and writing down the details of all these encounters; making them in turn sad, happy, funny, lucid, lovely, cruel and moving. My favorite poem reads thus:
I've never met Ron Padgett, but I almost did. I raised my fist before his door and paused. There were cicadas screaming to death in the rich summer trees. Why ruin it, I said, and walked away.