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Fiction on the go

The idea is not to eavesdrop, but to improvise, imagine, and create stories about strangers across the aisle, while keeping facts in sight

Fiction on the go

The game began many years ago, with a somewhat-naughty question: “In ki kya story hai?” (“What is their story?”)

My friend and I were taking the subway in New York City, and there was a teenage couple sitting near us that was bickering. The boy was trying to hold his apparent girlfriend’s hands, but she kept pushing him away while mournfully repeating the phrase, “I just can’t believe you let her do that.”

However, the idea was not to eavesdrop, but to improvise, imagine, and create a story for my friend, while keeping the facts in sight. The boy’s hair was streaked blonde, it looked like a fresh job — so I whispered to my friend, “His girlfriend’s arch enemy brought bleach to school today, and dared him to let her streak his hair after school in the girls’ toilets. He accepted the challenge, and now the girlfriend is hurt because he doesn’t even realise how betrayed this makes her feel”.

We invented backstories, dialogues, and futures for people everywhere we travelled. It got especially exciting in Mexico, where we understood only a handful of phrases and even fewer cultural connotations.

My friend was impressed — probably more so with the speed of my response as opposed to the indelicate plotline. She pointed to an old man with two cats peeping out of his backpack, and asked, “Aur inki story?” I obliged with a story about a man who helps pet owners transport pets around the city, he offers his services via craigslist, of course.

And so a tradition was born.

At some point, it occurred to us that inventing stories around people we know nothing about may be the very definition of judgemental — we quite literally base their life and personality around the few minutes we spend across an aisle from them — so like all good millennials, we turned to the internet for help and asked, “Is making up stories about strangers judgemental?” It turned out that this was Creative Writing 101 as it helped you explore characters and story arcs while checking your own internalised isms.

Later, I stumbled across This is Water, in which David Foster Wallace suggests that imagining people’s backstories in our everyday, may be the only way to empathise with humanity at large and consequently the only way to not lose yourself in the “unconsciousness, the default-setting, the rat race”.

Satisfied with this encouragement, we went on ‘creating’.

We invented backstories, dialogues, and futures for people everywhere we travelled. It got especially exciting in Mexico, where we understood only a handful of phrases and even fewer cultural connotations.

We spent hours concocting a backstory for an extremely American café owner we met at an obscure beach in Oaxaca. She was married to a Mexican man who spent his days drinking beer and smoking weed, while she sliced ceviche in the café’s kitchen. How did they meet? “She came from California with a big heartbreak, a bunch of girlfriends and not much to go back to. She fell in love with his ceviche, before him, and when the girlfriends moved on to the Chiapas, she stayed on.”

But why did they remain together once he stopped making the ceviche, and being helpful in general? “With two beautiful kids in the picture, it just felt too overwhelming to leave. Plus, he dealt weed to customers, which made them order more ceviche. So in a sense, he was contributing as much to the business as she was.”

This game may also be the reason I don’t like travelling alone. The stories turn out better, a lot more realistic, when someone is present to poke holes in the plot lines and challenge you to think harder.

Last month, I travelled to London by myself — the trip was for work, but like all dutiful middle-and upper-middle class people, I extended it on both ends to make a vacation out of a work trip. I met many friends in London, but there were many days and many commutes that I spent by myself.

One Sunday morning, while on the train from North Wembley to London Bridge, I saw a lady who intrigued me enough to break tradition and invent by myself. She was dressed in a deep-blue chiffon sari, and despite the November weather she wasn’t carrying a coat. Did she lose her coat? She seemed too in-control to be the kind of person who would lose a coat. She had impeccably polished fingernails, not a hair out of place, and lipstick applied with a lip liner — not the crude, hasty way most of us do our lips.

And that’s when it clicked. She was going to attend a family wedding outside London. She would get off at Euston and take the train to Manchester, where her daughter, and an assortment of grandchildren, ages 3-8, would be waiting to pick her up. She would transfer from a heated train carriage to a heated car to a heated marriage hall, and wouldn’t need a coat along the way.

When the lovely old lady stepped off the train at Euston (from where one can catch trains to Manchester), for a few minutes I celebrated my fiction. Then it occurred to me that when she would return to London that night, she’d likely have to walk home from the station, and not having a coat then didn’t make sense given how she loved planning ahead. I was stumped.

I made a mental note to call my friend to discuss the woman further. It wouldn’t be the first time we had done that. One time, when my friend was travelling through Guatemala, a woman with three toddlers and a baby boarded the bus and sat across from her. My friend didn’t pay the woman much attention till all of a sudden the woman  handed over the youngest child, a six-month-old baby, with an indecipherable instruction in Spanish. Not knowing how to refuse a baby, my friend took it. The Guatemalan woman then sat a few rows away from my friend, but not once did she check in on the baby. When her destination arrived, the woman took back the baby and left without so much as a thank you. I wasn’t there, but we have discussed this Guatemalan woman tens of times, trying to piece together what type of person she’d have to be in order to trust a foreign stranger with a baby that was clearly in her care?

There are many complicated theories about her, but the most resounding one is simple, it’s the one we keep coming back to, it’s that she’s like every other woman around, who just needs a break from it all.

Maham Javaid

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