My route to work took me through a flyover – which was situated half a kilometre from my house, a busy market, a residential lane and then this other road which had a lot of commercial complexes, offices and this one coffee shop. Every day I would get down at that coffee shop for my morning caffeine so I could handle my work. And every day outside this coffee shop sat an old woman with a table and two chairs spread out in front of her. She looked eccentric and I always supposed that she did so to play her part as a fortune teller. She did not have any crystal balls or tarot cards and always seemed to be lost in another world. She never called out to people like other fortune tellers did. In my two years here, I had never once heard her speak. But she was always there in that same spot every morning and every evening. I always looked at her and I wondered if she actually got any business, if she was able to feed herself, if there were other people who depended on her, if she had a family, etc. I wanted to know how she became a fortune teller. I wanted to know her story.
But I couldn’t ever stop and talk to her. No, that was quite unimaginable. Because I was a suit. A working woman with an eighty hour work week, who barely had time to call her parents every week. I didn’t know life beyond deadlines, reports and spreadsheets. The fat cheque that came my way every month was probably the sole purpose of my job. But that day something different happened; as I was walking out with my coffee looking at her, she suddenly twisted her neck and looked at me. She smiled. I froze. It was one of the most soft and innocent yet knowing smiles I had ever gotten. I didn’t even know if that description made any sense. It probably didn’t. But that is what I saw – a childlike creature, with the insight of someone very wise on the inside.
That day I couldn’t get that old lady out of my head. I kept thinking of the kind of life she must have lived. There was this weird pull towards her. I somehow made it to lunch and at that point I couldn’t stop myself anymore. I went to the coffee shop, and found her snoring slightly. I stood there for a moment; unsure of what I should do. I gave her a light shake, to which she did not respond. I looked around feeling utterly stupid and gave her a small push. She woke up with a start and looked around in a dazed manner. After realising that I was the one who had disturbed her afternoon siesta, she adjusted her glasses to look at me. She gave me a wrinkly smile and asked me to sit down. I sat down and looked at her. She looked back.
After a while I said, ‘Umm what exactly do we do now?’
She replied, ‘That depends. What have you come here for?’
I looked at her with my mouth open kicking myself mentally.
Somehow she sensed that and said, ‘It was not a stupid decision to come here. Don’t worry about what people will think of you.’
At this point I really didn’t know what to say so I continued looking at her.
She said, ‘You know, you took your own sweet time to come here. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.’
‘Uhh what do you mean?’ I asked her.
She gave me that warm smile and said, ‘You’ll see.’
After we sat staring at each other for a few more minutes, she took a deep breath and started. ‘You have a sibling. An older one perhaps and you feel you have spent your entire life in his or her shadow. You came here to escape from someone and part of you regrets it even today. You hate your job but you don’t know what you would rather do. You are secretly very unhappy and you yearn for love. You feel like you can’t trust anyone. You are constantly searching for something but you don’t know what it is yet. And also, you aren’t completely honest to yourself about something. Unless you admit that to yourself, you will not be able to move forward.’
I took a sharp breath in and just stared at her.
After collecting my thoughts I calmly responded, “You have been sitting here for a long time now. You probably see me every day and I’m sure you must have overheard a lot of conversations I have had. It is not difficult to come to that conclusion, if you are merely an eavesdropper.”
She smiled again and said, “If you believe that, you may leave right now. You do not owe me anything.”
I continued to stare.
She continued, “You have a deep curiosity about me and the life I have had up to now. I think that if you directed that curiosity towards your own life you would probably have a better understanding of yourself.”
I knew at this point that I shouldn’t just sit dumb there anymore. After I was sure that I wouldn’t go back into staring mode I looked at her and I asked, “What do you want me to do?” With that endlessly unnerving smile she told me, “I only want you to be true to yourself. Just think about your life now and tell me; is this really who you want to be?”
Somewhere in that sentence her smile vanished and a keen sense of concern appeared. This was beginning to get too intense. I thought to myself that I should probably leave. I had to get back to work and this was all probably a stupid idea anyway.
“Do not run away from anything child. Because, at the end of the day you can’t run away from yourself.”
Yes, I went back into staring mode. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything or even make a sound. As my breathing became uneven, I slowly got up, thanked her for her time and turned around. Just as I did, her cold and wrinkly palm closed on my wrist. As I turned to look at her with fear – almost – in my eyes, she said “Be true to yourself. That is your only way for you to be happy.” My eyes were on the verge of popping out of their sockets as this point. I backed off and hurried to work.
Needless to say, I wasn’t able to concentrate on work after that. Feigning a contagious illness, I left early. As I sank into my sofa at home, I just went over what was probably the most bizarre conversation of my life. Okay so maybe I was here to avoid a certain someone. But that was a different story. My work? Okay yeah.. But what did she mean? Be true to myself? About what? I went over to the window sill and stared at the city ahead of me. I sat there for a long time that day, just brooding over my life. After a while, I slept off there. It was only when my neck got sore that I woke up and reluctantly moved myself to my bed. The next morning, I got ready early and went to my office. I had decided to quit. When my boss asked me why – I told her that I want to cook. As she stared at me as if I were insane, I walked out. In the lift I wondered what my mom would say when she heard this. I smiled. She would completely freak out.
I decided to get one last coffee before going back home. When I reached the coffee shop, the old lady wasn’t there.