It’s not uncommon, as people who spend a reasonable amount of time with him will readily vouch for, for him to strike up a conversation with a random stranger on the bus. Maybe to pass a pseudo-intellectual comment on the book they are reading. Maybe to inquire about the comfort of their brand of shoes and whether they think he should buy them too. And if the stranger happens to be a kid, perhaps just to contort his face before saying that this is a college bus and school kids are not allowed.
The response that he manages to get, mostly, is a wry half smile, maybe a slight raise of the eyebrows, complemented by an overall facial expression that is not too far away from ‘why don’t you mind your own fucking business?’ A few times he is luckier; he is endowed with a reply – sometimes even an enthusiastic one. There is some sarcastic, half-witty Q&A back and forth before the conversation gently dies an unceremonious death. Although this by itself is quite satisfying, what make such endeavours truly worthwhile, he explains, are those few rare instances when the conversation, twisting and turning about this and that, finds itself on a particularly interesting topic and the person leaves him with a wonderful perspective that he might have never otherwise had.
I nod unsurely. I tell him other things about his behaviour that conventional social conduct and etiquette may regard as questionable – his irresistible propensity, for instance, to repeat (loudly) a funnily pronounced word, regardless of the pronouncer’s stature or the situation’s gravity; him singing ‘you’ll never walk alone’ to someone in a Liverpool shirt across the road; him inquiring, grimly, at the local tea shop if ordering an extra tea will fetch him a discount on the small Parle-G packet; him asking the European foreign exchange student her nationality, before exulting unabashedly, as she looks on, for having won the guessing game with his friend.
I ask him if he isn’t tired of the confused looks, of the ‘shut up, smartass’ stares, of being labelled unsophisticated, even cheap. He laughs off these accusations. He asks if I don’t find even a little hilarity in the immaturity of ordering in a bihari accent in an Italian restaurant, or in the naivety of scribbling a vulgar comment on the class geek’s well maintained notes. Besides, he claims he isn’t much concerned about people judging him – the stranger across the road, the vendor at the tea shop or the girl at the cafe are hardly likely to be making life-altering decisions for him. As long as he is not hurting anyone’s feelings, what’s the harm in having some fun, he questions.
And yet, he admits that things are not always all hunky-dory, picture-perfect. Situations do get clumsy. People do get irritated. He recalls, to site an example, walking down a rather deserted lane when he spotted a couple of well-built thugs letting their bladders loose by the side of the road. Instinctively, he mocked at them for spoiling public property and regretted having done so even before he had finished the sentence. He smiles guiltily as he recollects the skipped heartbeat, the accelerated walk.
However, he claims to have a sense of where to draw the line, in most cases anyway. When he does get stuck, he boasts of being able to snugly get out of potentially embarrassing, even dangerous situations.
I’m still not completely convinced. What if he takes it too far someday? What if on the receiving end of this harmless spontaneity is a depressed soul or a violent egoist? What if he hurts someone? What if someone hurts him? I continue to debate with him. I am him. He is me.