Tribute to a Mystery

This is a mystery. I don’t know her. I have never known her. I have no idea how she looks…

Tribute to a Mystery

Illustration: Debabrata Chakraborti

This is a mystery. I don’t know her. I have never known her. I have no idea how she looks or what she does. I have certainly never met her.

I get messages on the internet from her and, as I do with everybody, I reply. I say whatever seems right.

Following up on the exchange of messages, we now periodically speak to each other. The internet provides a myriad means of doing so conveniently and economically. So we do.


I took a look at our exchanged messages. We began as strangers begin, grasping for straws of common interest. We proceeded, as strangers proceed, by building on the few strands of shared knowledge. As days passed, we felt more comfortable and spoke more easily of ourselves. Yet we seem to have respected the cardinal, unwritten rule of the internet: Don’t ask too much, certainly not too soon.

I am less sure of what we have talked about. I know that she has been scrupulously considerate and never asked what I would have to ponder before disclosing. I hope I haven’t been presumptuous and probed where I shouldn’t have ventured. I know I am as curious as the next person, but I have learned it is not worth asking something that the other person has not disclosed on her own.

You will possibly be shocked to know what I don’t know about her. It is just about outrageous what she does not know about me. Yet the fact remains she is vitally important to me. There would be a big hole in my life if she weren’t in it. I also flatter myself that I mean something to her.

It has suddenly occurred to me that there is something gross about the way we gain people in our lives. We usually meet them, physically. We see them first, often we know a lot about them readily: where they live, what they do for a living, how they live and with whom. Often, we talk to them to fill in the other details: what they care for, what has happened to them, what they like to do, what they believe. All this before a relationship can begin.

Maybe our relationship, even with people we think we care for, are based on this large factual basis of who we think they are. Isn’t there a streak of vulgarity in this motive-laden way of building a relationship? Isn’t there a touch of narcissism in that probe-and-build style of developing a personal nexus?

Technology has suddenly given us a way to create a link with a person without knowing anything about her. In this vacuum there surely lurks the danger of falsehood and deception, as there is in walking into an unknown penumbral zone. But there is also the breathtaking prospect of discovering unexpected gold.

There is a special beauty in discovering a person, as the person is, without attributing special virtues or vices, depending on your prior experience with an engineer, a veterinarian, a government clerk or a journalist. Perhaps for the first time, you see a person as a person, shorn of expected features, just a human being, who lives, loves, revels and suffers just like you. I don’t know about you, but it certainly gives me a thrill.

“How are you?” starts a typical call.

“I am much better than yesterday, when you didn’t call,” I respond.

“I was quite busy. I had to run a number of errands. Two banks took a long time.”

“If you are spending that much time in banks, one may guess – enviously – you have a lot of money on your hands.”

“Not at all. The long lines were the problem. It wasn’t that bad. In one bank, at least the people were rather gracious.”

“You are lucky then. The bankers I encounter are very somber and sullen people.”

“You should try smiling at them. I do.”

“If you were the banker, I certainly would. All my banking is sadly online.”

This is the kind of insignificant palaver we often exchange.

Then, again, she might say, “I miss my dad.”

“Tell me why.”

“He always wanted me to learn things, be worldly-wise and self-sufficient. I miss his concern.”

“That’s a lovely memory to fall back on. It is sad you don’t have him. But you have some good memories to recall when you are lonely.”

“Yes, I have some good memories.”

“I too miss my dad, particularly when I travel.”

“How is that?”

“He liked to travel. Every time I go to a new place that I like, I wish he were with me to share the experience.”

That is how it goes, from the trivial to nearly sublime. It really does not matter what we talk about, I feel she listens to me. Even more, I feel she wants to hear me and understand what I am feeling. That is a very reassuring feeling.

We live in a world that does not always feel very sympathetic. It feels like, as Camus’s Meursault felt, a place of benign indifference. It feels good to have a faceless friend out there in the universe, a benign interlocutor who is not indifferent, who cares in a quiet way, hears me seamlessly and tells me, in effect, that I matter.

So here is a tribute to you, my friend: You mean more to me than you know. Your words are kind, your thoughts are generous. Your presence is a balm and your easy laughter – that silver cascade of sheer happiness – a joy forever. Stay with me, like a perennial rainbow, and add colour to the drab monochrome of my life. Just stay with me.

The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor.