Finding friendly strangers and a lost car

I'm sure I've written about this earlier (perhaps in this column), but it bears repetition.


Nivriti Butalia

Published: Sun 8 Jul 2018, 9:42 PM

Last updated: Sun 8 Jul 2018, 11:43 PM

Over the weekend, a friend and I were in a basement parking lot trying to find the car. We were done with a jaunt at the mall, and were paying the price of our earlier inattentiveness: neither had taken a picture of where we had parked. G-7? F-8?

Walking up and down the winding concrete layout, looking for a familiar sedan, I was thinking of an editor of an environment magazine who I had once spoken to for an article on air quality. I'm sure I've written about this earlier (perhaps in this column), but it bears repetition. He told me he parks nearest to the mall entrance if he can help it, and that he makes his wife and daughter carry scarves or handkerchiefs on them when cutting across parking lots, to not breath in those fumes. Parking lots, he said, have the worst air quality, no ventilation, no fresh air, just that air bounding off hot car engines.

And here we were, scarf-less, clueless, burning our nostrils and throats with carbon monoxide. The other price being paid was that our leftover lunch wasn't becoming any fresher. A sole spinach and corn kebab, two remaining spoonfuls of a salad, and leftover dal in the takeaway packet were dying a slow death.

With no alphabet and number on a pillar to guide us to our chariot, we bungled around for ten minutes. We got in and out of the elevator, in and out at different levels, and bored of our own stupidity, started thinking we might have to forgo the early minutes of the England-Sweden quarters. And, ha-ha, what if we never find the car? It would be like The Terminal.

Amid this rubbish banter, a man in the elevator with us, seemed amused at our scatterbrained mumbles. Me to my friend: "Is it this level? You think?" She: "Mmm. I don't know. Maybe the one below." The man: "Oh, I also cannot find my car. No idea where I parked, ha ha." We all then embarked on the quest of locating now two missing cars. I walked ahead. My friend, ever more sympathetic and polite said to him, "Oh, is it? We parked somewhere here, I'm sure". "Yes, cannot find", he repeated.

We walked around for a bit more. Man soon took off to look for his car on a higher level. In our 15th minute of hopelessness, we inadvertently chanced upon the white sedan. Hurray!

As we got in, relieved, and rolled down the windows to let fumes out and allow the air conditioner to kick in, I remarked to her about our different ways of dealing with strangers. "You're a lot more courteous with randos," I said, attributing my own relative brusqueness to years growing up in Delhi, warding off potential creeps. As far as I'm concerned, it's only prudent to not engage with some guy in a parking lot saying he's misplaced his car, even if he's not really a creep.

As we drove out, in a now cooled car, we spoke about how instincts work differently, the difference in her and my behaviours, possibly the result of growing up in different cities. She, more friendly, receptive to strangers, thinking uttering two lines is only polite. Me, more reserved with strangers, heeding the path of caution, discretion.

The thing is, in not all circumstance do I think and espouse the 'Why can't people mind their own business?' line. I am not averse to chatting with all strangers, it just depends on gut (and factors such as tiredness, therefore irritation). When I am stepping out of the metro and if I see two people, evident tourists, taking each other's photos, I sometimes ask if they want one together, and people always seem grateful to be asked. Who even asks strangers to get behind a camera anymore? And if tourists seem lost, poring over a map too long, I'm happy to ask if they need help. Sometimes, I get the get lost look too, and that's fine. Because if gratuitous interaction puts me on my guard, tourists too have the right to tell me to take a hike for being too familiar.

As my friend dropped me off in front of my building, I was thinking how easily people misconstrue friendliness for familiarity, and amiability for creepiness. Who's to say what interaction is called for and what isn't? It's not always clear.


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