Say hello to a stranger today

Published: May 14, 2019, 05:57 IST | C Y Gopinath

A different kind of magic starts to happen when you step out of your comfort zone and say hello to a total stranger

Say hello to a stranger today
I'm now a master at saying hello to total strangers. One thing leads to another, and usually, the most unusual friendships evolve. Representation pic/Getty Images

C Y GopinathI believe that if each person on the planet said hello to a total stranger once daily, the world would evolve into a substantially better place. Through years of practice, I'm now a master at saying hello to total strangers. One thing leads to another and usually the most unusual friendships evolve. So here is the first instalment of Hello Stranger #1, a column within a column for sharing my hello-stranger stories from time to time.

This one's about Katja, who I met because I said hello to a stranger called Israel. Yes, that is his name.

I was getting off an Indian Airlines plane back in 1980, when that was the only domestic airline. The book I was reading as we disembarked at Bombay — that's what we called it back then — said one should make a new friend every day. It didn't say why this was supposed to be good, but I decided to give it a go.

In front of me was someone in a white kurta and pajamas. I tapped his shoulder. It was a young foreigner from Haifa, Israel, at the end of his India holiday. His destination was the Israeli Consulate on Pedder Road. I was heading towards Nariman Point; it seemed logical to offer him a ride.

He thought it might inconvenience me. He needed to first go to the international airport — then known as Sahar Airport — to deposit his rucksack in Left Luggage. He was right: that was a definite inconvenience, since Sahar was a good distance away in the opposite direction — but it seemed logical to protest and say really, no problem at all.

So we went in the other direction, he checked in his luggage and we were standing in some endless airport corridor when I saw this bird in a colourful Rajasthani ghagra and curly hair running in our direction. She was really very tall. Like one of those Na'vis in Avatar. She was heading towards us.

Towards Israel, actually. I don't think she quite trusted the locals. I heard an interminable torrent of anguished German, with tears in full flow. Israel listened impassively and then with a shrug towards me, made the tall girl my problem.

Katja Wanderlüng, 19, fresh from a vacation in Goa with her friends, had returned to Bombay only to learn that her Lebanon Airways flight had left a day earlier. The next one was five days away.

So there she was, panic-stricken in a chaotic city of unsettling brown men who stared at women. I asked her questions and learned that the German Consulate at Nariman Point had a dole for stranded German tourists, if only she could get there. It seemed only logical to offer Katja a ride into town as well. Pretty soon I was rattling along in a hot and rickety Fiat taxi with not one, but two strangers. Two for the price of one.

I became aware of murmured conversations in the back seat. Israel was talking to her in a steady stream of urgent words, and a while later I realized Katja was sniffling, in tears. It took me another moment to figure it out. I had put a German and a Jew together in the back seat — and the Jew was putting the German on trial for her ancestors' sins.

She sat silent after we dropped Israel off. She must have been terrified, alone in a city she had never been to with a man she had met just an hour earlier. Well, things only went downhill from there.

The German Consulate had closed at 4 pm, which led to her second deluge. Now she was stranded and without money.

I had an idea. We returned to my office — a small features agency of writers — and fed and watered Katja with dosas and tea. I gave her R500 — no small sum back then — and sent her to the inter-state bus station with my peon to put her on a bus back to Goa.

"But I'm an art student," she said when I offered her the money. "I don't earn. I can't repay you."

I suggested she could pay it forward some distant day to some other stranded traveler in her own country.

A month later, a handsome coffee table book on Nüremberg arrived in the mail. The accompanying letter said Katja had begun saving and hoped to repay me one day. A year and a half later, in March 1982, I travelled abroad for the first time. Two friends and I were going to London and then cross country over Europe.

A letter from Katja in March announced that she finally had the German marks to repay me.

On May 16, 1982, a handful of pounds was waiting for me when we reached London.

I still have the book on Nüremberg.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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