Saleem And Johnny

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Saturday, 27 November, 2010

Chennai, India

We’ve travelled mostly via rickshaws and tourist coaches thus far. The Indian roads are rather intimidating for first timers, limiting the danger was our key to survival. However, after a few weeks of near misses, we concluded that we must be invincible and booked a local bus to take us from Pondicherry to Chennai. We wanted a taste of authenticity – for better or for worse.

The bus was extremely crowded, yet, amazingly, and thankfully, we somehow managed to get a seat. Each row would squeeze in at least an extra three bodies, so, we would not be moving until the people to our left did so. This is a five-hour journey – what if I needed to pee? I considered this at the time. I looked down at the bottle of water in my hand and told myself that I might be making lemon juice later – you’ll all be happy to know that that never had to happen.

Ruby was squished up against the window on my right, while on my left, I had Saleem. Saleem knew me as Johnny, evidently, he misheard my response, but I decided that trying to correct him would be an unnecessary challenge – so, to somebody in this world, I am now Johnny Parker.

Our friendship began when he nudged me. At first, I thought that I was bothering him somehow or that he had seen my bottle and needed to make his own lemon juice – we had been travelling for an hour at this point. In reality, he was simply just a man that had become bored of looking out of the window and wanted some attention. He started pointing at the moles on my arm and smiling. Not your usual conversation opener, but he seemed harmless enough. I nodded, and allowed him to continue prodding away.

The moles soon lost their appeal and he went back to flicking his thumbs. However, that would not be the end of Saleem and Johnny – he had further ideas to enhance our bond. From out of nowhere, he shoved his left headphone into my ear – another rather unorthodox method when interacting with a stranger.

I can’t deny it though, I was incredibly intrigued. He must be listening to an absolute banger, if he can’t help but ram his music deep into a stranger’s ear. The song wasn’t an instant head-shaker like I hoped, in fact, it wasn’t even a song – he tuned me into an Indian talk show. Discussions being in, I guess, Hindi, Urdu or even Chhattisgarhi – it was hard to fully appreciate the content.

I pride myself on my manners though, so I listened for about twenty minutes and chuckled along when prompted by the shows’ laughter track. Was he fooled? It’s difficult to say; my new friend was a very hard man to read. He at least seemed pleased by my appreciation of the show. That said, my performance was full of confidence as I always knew that I had my moles to fall back on should he not appreciate my act.

Once I felt as though I had listened long enough to justify taking his headphone out of my ear, I decided to respond with a kind gesture of my own. I asked Saleem if he would like to listen to a song on my iPod. Music is after all a universal language, and just like everybody else, I believe that my musical taste is the greatest. What could possibly go wrong?

Without thinking too deeply, I chose a Nat King Cole record – as an artist, he is pretty inoffensive. Or, so I thought! Saleem reacted with immediate disapproval; he pulled the headphone straight out of his ear, and lightly threw it into my chest. Damn! I wonder if Nat has been getting into the hibbidy dibbidy with his wife or something.

He then turned his head and tuned back into his talk show. Even though I didn’t understand what was going on, there was still a part of me that was disappointed he no longer had a spare headphone for me. I guess the lesson here is never play Nat King Cole to a stranger.

While we remained side by side in body, we had zero interaction for two hours. However, this unpredictable rollercoaster of a friendship was not quite over just yet. Saleem had been silently reevaluate the situation, and while he didn’t say it outright, I think he knew that throwing my headphone at me and turning his noggin to face the other way was slightly rash. Little did I know it, but he was about to offer me a second chance.

He wasn’t just giving me another go, but my music taste too – what I had done to gain such an opportunity was anybody’s guess, but I would not be letting such a chance pass me by twice.

Unfortunately, this time Saleem would not be merciful enough to allow me time to choose the song – instead he just yanked the headphone out of my left ear (apparently, we were close enough with each other to do that), and placed it in his own left ear. This also brought our heads very close together, the wire on my headphones really doesn’t stretch that far! I was now playing conjoined twins with the music man.

Here’s where the world dealt me a cruel hand; my iPod was on shuffle. We all have a guilty pleasure or two on our music devices and mine was playing as he hit me with his sneak attack. After his far from positive response to Nat King Cole, I was pretty nervous whilst waiting for his reaction to Gabrielle. Was he about to punch me?

Saleem is undoubtedly a wild cat; pretty much every action he has made throughout the journey has taken me by surprise – but in spite of all that, I was just not ready for his response to Gabrielle. He started dancing, and I mean, seriously going to town with crazy hand moves. His hands and arms were flying all over the place – this appeared to be the best song he had ever heard! Gabrielle, I’ve accidently created your biggest fan!

Who would have guessed that all we need to reignite the spark in our friendship was a little bit of soft 90’s pop? The trust was back and Saleem once again felt arguably too comfortable. The partying got too much for him and he fell asleep on my shoulder, with the headphone still in his ear. I was now the pillow and personal DJ of a man I knew very little about other than his love for moles and Gabrielle.

Ten minutes prior to reaching our destination, Saleem arose with a great big yawn and started talking to me in (presumably) Hindi. This went on until the end of our bus journey and I was left nodding and smiling a lot. It was within this section of the ride that we exchanged names – Saleem and Johnny.  Sadly, that is where my brief friendship with Saleem, music guru, comes to an end. I will miss that guy!

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