A Stranger Strangely Close to Me

Let me ask you this. What’s your earliest memory of a stranger? When our parents asked us not to talk to a stranger as we went out to play, what did they really mean? To think of it, no one ever really gave a character sketch of this person. The lack of description led me to believe I need to stay away from unknown people and only surround myself with familiar faces. And it’s natural, isn’t it? We feel comfortable around people we know. How can you feel happiness or sorrow for someone you don’t know or haven’t met? It’s because of this line of reasoning that what transpired over the past few weeks will always remain close to my heart.

As I sat at the dinner table gawking at the loaf of bread sehri had to offer that day, I was mentally somewhere else.

“What if oxygen ran out on her? What if the injections didn’t make it on time?”

My friend and I had put in our heart, mind and soul into helping this one woman – a stranger – live. This is what it has come to in India; it’s up to a bunch of 19 year olds to try and save lives. We can’t even hand in assignments on time and circumstances demanded that we be saviours. It was a race against time to arrange for oxygen, to make that one call that could help her live. I wanted to believe that this would end well for us. Our intentions were good. The fact that we were able to tend to her medical requirements within a short span of time filled me with positivity.

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I drank some water and went to sleep with the hope of a brighter morning. I was woken up by a WhatsApp message that read “Ayaan”. Now that I think about it, I knew in that moment that something bad had happened. With trembling fingers, I typed, “Yes?”

And then the news broke. The stranger had passed away. Those sleepless nights desperately looking for leads on Twitter, reaching out to contacts for help were all in vain. Why did this happen? I gave it my best shot and it didn’t work. Where did things go wrong? For hours, I considered it my failure when it shouldn’t have been my responsibility in the first place. If only we treated our statues as statues and humans as humans, if only our hospitals outnumbered the places of worship, then perhaps she could have been saved.

But it’s not only about her, it’s not about me – it’s never about individuals, and it shouldn’t be. And whenever people try to engage in hero worship, catastrophe follows. I think our current leadership justifies the point I intend to make. People continue to succumb to the virus and many like me continue to lose strangers to it. I never thought someone I never met could have made such a lasting impression on me.

As I mourn the loss of an unknown person, maybe it’s time to rethink what the word ‘stranger’ means. Maybe it’s not about meeting or knowing or about the comfort of familiar faces, it’s about who we choose to be to others in times of anguish. The people of India continue to be each other’s life support amidst this chaos and I pray for good times ahead.

Not documenting the woman’s struggle felt disrespectful. This is a tribute to a stranger strangely close to me. May she rest in peace.

Ayaan Khan is a student at Ramjas College, University of Delhi. If daydreaming were a movie, he’d star in the leading role.

Featured image credit: 愚木混株 Cdd20/Pixabay