Am I an agony aunt?

Through the lens, lightly


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Thu 16 Feb 2023, 9:12 PM

It’s happened to me on many occasions. A gathering starts off as being a predictable gathering; people meet and greet, enjoy sips and bites, indulge in banter, swap nostalgia — the average litany of stuff that systematically unfolds in social ecosystems. But somewhere in the middle of it, I get pulled in by somebody or the other to become the sounding board of ‘personal’ matters — aka, relationships and/or domino effects (rabbit holes, the pessimists would say) created by relationships.

At one such gathering, I’d barely met someone and it turned out he and I had a common friend — more an acquaintance for me — and he suddenly started telling me his life story vis-à-vis her. On auto-prompt. While that story unraveled, he also disclosed his innermost turmoils and deepest insecurities.

The third person with us, a dear friend who had introduced us, was utterly flummoxed. “I know this guy for a really long time, and he’s never ‘exposed’ himself like this — how do you do this?” he asked once the venter made himself scarce.

“Hey, I didn’t do a thing!” I expostulated. “If you noticed, I was trying to change the subject.”

“I did notice that,” he admitted. “So what is it about you that makes people open up?”

Maybe I look like an agony aunt, I offered. You know those people who offer solutions to curveballs life offers from time to time. They offer it on paper; I do it in person. “And maybe people mistakenly assumed I’m a really good listener… maybe I have that kind of a face.”

A couple of decades ago, I worked for a magazine that had an agony aunt column — which was, by all accounts, pretty popular. The backlog of emails and physical letters we’d receive was immense. One day, out of the blue, the agony aunt — a seasoned ‘socialite’ — pulled out of the column, and since the page couldn’t be discarded, I was asked to be a stop-gap agony aunt.

I began to notice there was one particular writer — a woman, or at least seemingly a woman going by the name — who had issues about her family, and feelings of being unappreciated.

Most families are dysfunctional but are in denial. I, on the other hand, grew up in a family that admitted to being dysfunctional and took guard with that stand. What transpired, therefore, was an uncanny ability to call a spade a spade and keep on shovelling. That’s precisely what I did to this woman who wrote in.

She continued writing in, broad-basing her range of grievances. After her third letter, we decided to give her short shrift: we had already answered too many of her queries, and it was beginning to look a lot like favouritism… or, worse, laziness.

She then mailed me and said she wanted to meet me in person because “I’ve never come across anyone with such empathy and insights as yourself, so I’d be honoured to catch up in person, I have so much to ask you”.

I never did meet her because my colleagues insisted she sounded like a stalker and I capitulated.

A few days later, a few of us were freewheeling, fortified by sundowners. “What would you like to be in your next life?” someone asked.

“Aaahhhhh, interesting question!” another person piped up.

“Well, I know what I want to be,” I said. “I want to be a shrink, somewhere in SanFran’s Bay Area, where my beach cottage would double up as my chambers, and I’ll sigh at the prettiness of it all each time I drive down the coastal road to my home/office after a bout of city exchanges… while being agog with expectation about the stories I will hear and analyse as my day’s work…”

“Wow, you are sorted about your next life,” the quizzer exclaimed. “What about this one?”

“I think I’ll have to suffice being an agony aunt.”

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