Saturday, October 16, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Stranger Friends

Some fifteen years ago, my mother called me at my hostel to give me some news. “I met a young German on the train. He didn’t have a place to stay, so I brought him home.” I was shocked. Who was this young German man? Apparently my mum and he were travelling on the same train and my mother got talking to him. She found out that he was visiting India for a while before returning home to begin his PhD.

I tried to tell her that she couldn’t just bring some stranger home, but I knew from experience that she could (and did). She’s been known to strike up conversations with people at cricket matches, bring them home for lunch and send them off with gifts.

Once, in 1989, during the break-up of the Soviet Union, when all Eastern Europe had caught the spirit of glasnost and perestroika, a Polish family left their home in Warsaw for Australia. In Chennai, our respective flights – their connecting one and ours back home – were delayed and we happened to sit at adjacent tables at the cafeteria. Naturally, my mother struck up a conversation that lasted a full five hours. At the end of it, my mother gave that family the address of another friend of hers in Australia upon whom they could impose when they landed. We’ve never met them again, but that was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship.

It still amazes me that in the era before Facebook (BFE) and Google – because of which tools we have recently reconnected to these old friends – it was possible to seek and find friendships without thought of introductions or references.

In the last two decades, the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ has become common currency, based not only on the play and the film of the play, but also on the germ of a theory of social networks first mentioned in the work of Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy.

A passage in Karinthy’s short story, ‘Chains’, published in 1929, goes thus: “One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth—anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.” [from wikipedia].

Mark Zuckerberg has reduced the odds somewhat, but I don’t know about the six degrees. I can think back to the Polish family and the German and say with certainty that there was no way to find a connection between us, even up to a dozen steps away. We were strangers until we became friends.

It seems less possible now, not just because we really are more connected globally but also because we have a trust deficit when it comes to true strangers. Even in the virtual world, it’s more likely that one’s friends are people already familiar from commonly occupied territories such as blogs or other forums.

What this seems to suggest is, that in the Facebook Era (FE) one is somehow always-already connected to everybody else. Put another way, you can only be friends with someone you already know and a stranger is someone in whose presence you will very likely take out your phone and pretend to check messages.

I can’t help thinking of my reckless mother on that train. I wonder what my father thought when she returned from the station with a travelling student, and what the student thought when my mother conveyed to him my misgivings about her bringing unknown people home.

Actually, that part I do know. She told him what I’d said and he apparently agreed, saying I was right to be worried. She said later that she’d spent a sleepless night then.

I have to admit, I’m strangely proud of her. It takes some courage and faith to meet another human being on equal ground, with no preconceptions or expectations and no references or social rewards. My mother has that kind of courage. I know, to my eternal regret, that I don’t.

An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.


km said...

It takes some courage and faith to meet another human being on equal ground, with no preconceptions or expectations and no references or social rewards.

No "like" button or even a Retweet? How quaint!

JP said...

Actually it needn't even be courage; I simply don't have the same interest or regard for people to ever do what you mother did. Fully engaged and quite alienated; call me the digital kid.