I often say that I am the easiest person to buy a gift for – just get me a book and I’m on cloud nine! Be it history, thrillers, sci-fi, biographies, war stories, ghost stories, fairy tales, absolutely anything… I will read it happily. Although after reading a new book, I always go back to certain ones which I have owned eternally. For example, after reading thrillers and action-packed adventures I usually re-read Anne of Green Gables. Or sometimes I sift through the pages of Lord of the Rings for selected passages and poems. The same goes for my Tintin and Famous Five collection. I can’t say why I do this; I’ve never been able to say why certain books keep pulling me back to them. But it makes me feel happy inside… almost safe and secure. Like meeting old friends after ages, or coming home after traveling the world. That satisfaction, familiarity and camaraderie is hard to describe.
One such book which has been with me since forever (I don’t remember not having it ever) is a big, red, heavy volume called “Walt Disney’s Storyland: 55 Favourite Stories” (anyone having read my last post will be well-aware of my Disney fixation). It has some fascinating illustrated stories. The best thing about it though is the first page – a blank page with a little yellow post-it stuck to it.
Over the years I’ve taken great care to never lose that tiny note. To
This Neetu, or “Neetu Didi” as I am told I called her, was the daughter of my father’s friend. She had gifted this book to me when my family and I left New York to return to India for good. Interestingly, her message turned out to be a prophecy of sorts – I did eventually learn to read and this was one of the first books I ever read from cover to cover.
Also, she wasn’t there to see me read it.
What’s worse is I don’t remember Neetu Didi at all… not her face, not her voice, nothing. She is, in effect, a complete stranger to me. Those being the pre-email, pre-cell phone days, Dad lost contact with his friend. We have tons of photographs from our New York years, but none of her. But I haven’t lost hope. One day, I will find her and thank her personally for giving me the first book I ever fell in love with.
I sometimes sit back and think about all the people like her who have knowingly or unknowingly touched my life with their thoughtful actions. It’s amazing how many strangers are kind to us and help us when least expected… and we never even get the opportunity to thank them properly.
My parents tell me one such story. When we left for New York, I was a baby. The long flight took a toll on my health and I got really sick in the plane. The airline staff wasted no time in helping out, without being disgruntled or disgusted. So thoughtful were they, that on alighting at the airport, the air-hostess handed Mom a packet of milk. “For your baby”, she told her, “Keep this. You probably won’t get anything for her at the airport. This will come in handy.” They didn’t have to do it; they probably didn’t do it for everyone (they definitely don’t nowadays!). But they did it for Mom and me. I shall remember that forever.
Another time in Mumbai, my sister and I got onto a crowded BEST bus with no vacant seats. As we were standing, a little 7 – 8 year old boy tugged at my sister’s sleeve and offered his seat to her. Before we could say anything, he quickly jumped and sat on the lap of the man on the seat behind – his father. My sister politely declined and said she didn’t mind standing, but he wouldn’t budge. Then he whispered something into his dad’s ear. The father turned to us and explained, “He’s very happy to offer the seat. Today in school they were taught it was the sign of a gentleman to offer a seat to a lady.” At this, the kid gave us the biggest 100-watt smile ever! My sister thanked him and sat down. His chest literally puffed up; he looked so proud and happy!
Then there was the time a salesman in a store gave the 3-year old me a free pair of sunglasses because, “she looked so sad all the grown-ups were buying sunglasses but no one bought her any.” Or the time the lady behind the counter secretly gave me extra sprinkles on my ice-cream without my even asking for them. Or the guy at the Wagah Border in Amritsar who bodily guarded my sister and me from getting crushed under the stampeding crowds… the old uncle who proffered me a glass of hot tea in the Golden Temple when he saw me shivering with cold. Even the lady who literally appeared out of nowhere with a nice big bag on seeing me struggling with loads of stuff in my arms. I never got the chance to thank them properly, but whenever I think of them, I thank them in my heart and say a little prayer. I believe it reaches them.
Sometimes complete strangers smile at you, help you when you need it the most, make a difference to your life in the most unexpected ways. You will probably never cross paths with them ever again, but you can never forget them either. Where do they come from? Where do they go? Maybe we will never know.
People call them strangers. I call them angels.
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