My evenings in Europe were usually spent indoors. I was a man of a few words, and fewer indulgences. I hardly ever enjoyed the pub culture. The nightlife this world was so engrossed in, had a very little impact on me. It wasn’t like I never got high till I passed out. I too had my good and bad trips after snorting. But seeking pleasure in intoxication could never be my scene.
After a few fumbling teenage years, I never really went down that lane. With time, my ambition surpassed my need for recreation. It gave me the kind of focus it took to get as successful as I was today starting from scratch. I migrated to Europe from India around half a decade ago. I kept travelling across the continent, learning their languages, adapting their culture.
But the nightlife could never seduce me. Hence, I found myself cut off from social circles. However, my non-acceptance to social circles can also be attributed to my immense success. Sometimes your achievements make you unwelcome.
All of this, lead me to live a retired and secluded life at home. I usually sat curled up in my comfy chair near my fireplace with a book on most nights.
But, that night was different. At 31, living with your own shadow for such a long time can become scary. My demons were getting the better of me. My anxiety was at its peak and the need for human contact was making me desperate. But I knew it had to be meaningful. And meaningful relationships aren’t built in a day.
So I wandered in the cold night on the loud streets of London. I didn’t know where I was headed. I had no idea why I was roaming around aimlessly. I was just feeling the cold night on my skin and kept looking at the things I found beautiful.
I don’t know if I was odd for finding beauty in unconventional things. Or they were genuinely beautiful but people failed to observe their beauty? Well, how could I possibly know?
I came across a small eatery. It was really small, compact enough to go unnoticed. Like the Leaky Cauldron from Harry Potter! Was I a wizard to have noticed that shop? I smiled at my own thoughts. I needed to get out of the imaginary world I was so accustomed to living in and for once interact with real people!
I stepped inside that congested little place. The wind chime at the entrance crinkled as I closed the glass door behind me. There were two rows of four tables in all. Two people could sit facing each other across the tiny fixed tables on an uncomfortable fixed marble platform-like sitting arrangement.
I didn’t know what fascinated me about that secluded, congested and shady-looking eatery, but I was drawn to it and today, I was just acting on instinct. As my eyes adjusted to the red and purple lights that made the small dark room look gloomier, I couldn’t help but be captivated by the smell of lentil soup. I traced the source of the smell and my eyes met with an Asian old lady who stood behind the counter.
By her appearance, I could tell that she wasn’t doing fine. It was obvious that not many people visited her. It was weekend anyway. What else could she expect? The crowd was busy getting drunk somewhere, anywhere.
The place was small but incredibly clean. And many delicious fragrances were stimulating my brain, but lentils were the only ones familiar to me.
I gave the old lady a small smile. She looked confused. Probably at the fact that a youngster like me was wandering around in her humble parlour on a Saturday night. Or maybe I was too well-dressed for the surroundings? I, however, continued to smile.
She returned a polite smile, which didn’t reach her eyes. I seated myself on a table facing her. She adjusted her counter a little and then went inside her kitchen. A teenage boy came out. He was an Asian too, probably her grandson.
He walked towards me, I smiled at him. He smiled back. Again, it was a professional smile that lacked any sort of warmth.
“What would you like to have?” he asked, trying to sound professional but I could guess he hadn’t had the chance to finish high school by the way he spoke.
“Lentil soup,” I said, without even asking for the menu.
He gave a confused expression.
“We do not have that here!” he said after a pause.
“Oh…” was all I could utter. I didn’t like that I was wrong in guessing the smell.
He sensed my tone of disappointment and quickly added, “But we could get it for you if you could wait a little!”
He spoke the first line with a desperate excitement but uttered the last words in sheer disappointment. I smiled.
“I can smell some lentils, I don’t know what is it if not soup, but I would love to try it if you can get it for me!”
He almost jumped with excitement. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of customers here, I could see why.
He ran back inside the kitchen to get the lentil dish. I spread my legs and arched my back, trying to relax. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe into the aroma of that little place.
I heard the wind chime tingle again followed by some indistinct chatter. Instinctively I turned around. This boy was talking to a female standing at the entrance of the door. He was hurriedly saying something, probably trying to shoo her off. He kept on turning, looking at me. He was probably scared of something.
I had a better look at the woman through the glass door. She was wearing a skimpy red dress which barely covered her. Red stilettoes and heavy make-up screamed the word stripper.
“But I can’t come later, my shift starts in fifteen minutes!” she was talking really slow with a weird desperation on her face. But I could lip-read well.
“Granny does a lot for you, Amy! We have a REAL customer today. Please don’t make him leave!” he said trying to close the door on her.
Oh, so he was trying to keep me. He didn’t want me to think that bad crowd came here.
I got up from my seat and walked towards the door. I could see how scared he was. Maybe he was relieved a little when I smiled at him.
“Hey brother, what’s wrong?” I asked genuinely.
“N…nothing…” he said, giving her a stern look. Dejected, she turned and started walking away.
“Hey!” I called after her and she stopped in her tracks. “Want to join me for some dinner?”
She thought for a few seconds, considered it. Scanned me with her eyes two-three times, top to bottom. Her guard was up, I could see that she was scared. Maybe she thought I liked her. Maybe she thought I would ask for some favours in return of food. She was confused but I couldn’t build trust with one sentence, could I?
She gulped in whatever pride she still had left within her and started walking back towards the outlet. Maybe she did that every night, gulping her self-respect and pride. I didn’t know her story, how could I judge?
I didn’t wait for her to enter. I took my seat. She walked slowly and sat on the opposite seat across my table. The boy followed her. As he walked past us, I said, “Get her whatever she wants and add it on my tab!”
She gave me an astonished expression. My presence was too weird for all of them.
We sat in silence until our food arrived. She was looking at the wall clock constantly.
“Where do you work?” I asked casually.
She was too confused to answer, but I bet she had come across many weird men before.
“Two blocks away,” she said without meeting my eyes.
“You get a daily wage?” was my next question.
She nodded and continued to gulp down her food.
“Does that matter? Look….”
I cut her off. Obviously, she doubted my intentions.
“No, I just want you to eat at peace. Don’t work tonight. Call in sick. Eat well, go back to your home and rest. I would give you your wage.”
“If I wanted to live on charity, I would’ve never taken that job!” she retaliated.
“Oh, but this is not charity! It’s a gift. I am gifting you a night’s peace and break. We all deserve a break from our routine. But not all of us can afford it.”
She just couldn’t believe her ears. Also, she probably thought I was a stupid and a crazy man!
“Why….?” It was all that could escape her mouth.
I didn’t know if it was a question or a statement.
“Sonder,” I said.
She obviously didn’t get it. Her face was as confused as it was in the beginning.
“You see, I am a book worm. A few years back an author published a book. “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” In his book, he came up with new words for emotions that currently lack words. In German, sonder means ‘special’ and in French, it means ‘to probe’. But according to this dictionary, it means the feeling of realisation that everyone in this world, even the strangers we pass by are living a life as complicated as our own.
“I have my own set of problems. My loneliness, my anxiety, my bitter-sweet memories, my flaws and my losses. I am wandering on the streets to escape them. You cannot afford to cover yourself in this chilly night. That old woman is working so hard in this tiny yet beautiful restaurant. Her grandson is trying to preserve his customers to make some hard-earned money. I don’t know anyone’s story here. No one knows mine. But this tiny little bond that connects us all, this made-up word – sonder, it makes me want to ease a life or two if I can!
“And I don’t do it because I have a saviour complex. Nor do I think it is some kind of charity. I think we are all on the same side, battling life. And if you can push a comrade or two to win his battle, then you should!”
She just kept staring at me. I smiled and handed her a few Euros which I was sure would definitely be more than her wage. I left a few bills on the counter tipping the old lady and that young boy, who probably gave that girl free food every day, generously.
“The lentils were amazing!” I screamed a compliment, not sure if it reached the old lady and walked out of the eatery before anyone had the chance to thank me for the little money I lavishly spent.
They had no idea how easy my night was today. They didn’t know what it meant for me to see that I wasn’t struggling alone.
Sonder was obscure. Sorrowful. But at the same time, it was relieving and empowering.