Sonder – noun.
“The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”– John Koenig, “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”
If there is one thing that could be considered the lifeblood of Mumbai, it is the people. There are people everywhere, all the time, grinding, hustling, working to make a living. A woman steps onto the train selling knick-knacks, a man sits on the roadside cleaning shoes, another sits next to him with a stall selling bags, another next to him selling pani puri. And on it goes, people lining the streets, driving on the roads, filling the train carriages as they travel to and from work. While this was overwhelming at first, there is a certain charm to the way people make the very best of the cards they have been dealt.
While these people are working long hours, calling for your attention as you walk past their stalls, offering their services, they are generally the nicest, friendliest people you will meet. Picture this:
You are waiting for an uber outside the street food vendors at Juhu beach. When he arrives, you hop in and start the drive home – it’s going to take 40 minutes and it’s already 9 pm. You look out the window and realise that you are travelling in the completely opposite direction. There are two immediate reactions – fight or flight. You’re a foreigner in a different country, and your driver is taking you the wrong way. What do you do?
The logical reaction was to try to get the driver back on the right track. As it turns out he had just made a wrong turn, and as we played I Spy and tested out different Hindi phrases, he joined in, laughing, correcting pronunciation and teaching us that in Hindi, “sona” means both gold and sleep. What could have been a situation of panic (and justifiably so), turned into one of my favourite rides in Mumbai to date.
I think, in a way, our group has begun to emulate this willingness to share. As people stare at us (completely understandable – I stick out like a sore thumb), I’ve grown to realise it is not out of offence but curiosity, the same way we look back at them. It even makes you feel a little famous when people stop you randomly and ask for a picture, especially when a couple once handed me their baby girl to take a picture with. When descending from Sondai Fort, we encountered some people on the mountain and compared currency, explaining the different people on the NZ notes. When I work, I show my co-workers pictures of New Zealand, talking about the differences between here and back home. When we met the NMIMS students, there was an exchange of knowledge – Bollywood dancing, waiata, discussion of our study.
Every car we hop into, every guide we meet offers us a chance to ask questions, to get to know these people, if only just for a moment. From the guide at the Sondai Fort Trek to the couple who offered us a lift to the station, to the students we met at NMIMS, to the lady who helped me pay the ticket collector on the bus. I have spent this week in a state of sonder, continually amazed by the richness and vibrancy of the everyday lives of those around me. Every person I meet is so willing to help, to share their culture and knowledge, and I only hope that I can offer them a little of mine in return.