Monday, March 02, 2009

To Smile or Not to Smile

‘What does a smile cost you?’ asked my mother-in-law when I told her about running into a neighbour from our hometown, outside the supermarket. My brother had been with me and we were coming out of the Complex compound when this middle aged thin man started walking towards us, looking as though he wanted to speak to me.

‘Looks like one of those well dressed tramps who come with sob stories and end up asking for money”, I told my brother under my breath. I had remembered a similar story told to me by one of my colleagues just two days before.

The man, walking quickly towards us, reached us. I noticed that my brother was about to say something to him. But the man was already asking me with a smile if I were so & so's daughter-in-law and so & so’s wife.
Yes, I told him. He then identified himself. He was our neighbour back home ( obscenely rich, i remebered the name) and when I didn’t return his smile, he thought he should come up and identify himself.

“How stupid you are”, protested my brother, totally annoyed. “I was about to ask him for some money. That’s the best way to drive off decent looking mendicants”.

My mother-in-law had a good laugh when i my narrated this incident. She tried to imagine the situation where my brother beat him to it and asked him for money, and the explanations I would have had to concoct to be seen in the company of a man who asks for money from total strangers. “Surely, you cant tell him you mistook him for a beggar; also, you can’t also introduce M as your brother too”. Wiping tears of laughter, she advised me not to be so miserly with my smile.
“Nobody will smile at you if they don’t know you; You have such a terrible memory for faces. So just smile back. It costs you nothing. Otherwise you’ll offend people”, she said.

Yes, after all, what does a smile cost me I thought. And I practised her advice, smiled at everybody who smiled at me, whether I knew her/him or not.

And then, one day, at the railway station of the small town where I worked, I was waiting for the Madras Mail. My friends from the other colleges and offices hadn’t yet arrived. So I sat on the bench, and looked around.

Then I saw him.

A tall square faced man with light eyes. I knew I had seen him somewhere. He looked very very familiar. I must have been staring at him for I saw him look straight at me. Then I saw a hint of a smile on his face.

I gave him a broad, charming smile.

I usually look away after smiling at a person whom I didn’t recognize. But before I could do it, I saw a startled expression on his face. Then he too smiled. And started walking towards me.

I was desperately trying to remember who he was, where I had seen him but couldn’t. He sat on the other end of the bench. I looked at him, hoping to place him from the conversation. He turned his head and smiled hesitantly. Suddenly, like a bolt of thunder lighting up the sky, the truth was revealed to me. Yes, yes, with that same abruptness that the law of buoyancy exploded on Archemedes, and which made him rush down through the streets of Greece in a state of undress!
In flash, I knew why he looked familiar.

He looked exactly like Kapil Dev who was a much fêted celebrity then, and so was among the most visible faces in India.

That’s why he looked familiar!

Disaster! I didn’t know the man, and I had smiled at him!

I jumped up from the bench and walked quickly towards the book shop, and searched and bought a magazine I did not want. As I turned to leave the shop, I saw the man standing behind me. Then I rushed to the soft drink counter of the railway canteen and asked for a Fanta, stood there and drank it. Turning around, I saw him standing there, too.

I panicked. As usual I started knocking at heaven’s gate to pull me out of the mess I had got myself into. “Please, pleeeease, God. Deliver me from this stalker!”, I pleaded.

Tanta daang! At the entrance of the platform, my friends appeared – six or seven of them! And they stepped on to the platform laughing and talking.

I bolted towards them.

I must have looked flustered, ‘cos they asked what the matter was. Without looking at the man, I told them that the man standing near the refreshment counter was stalking me.

There were a few very bold ladies among them and they decided to handle him. I pleaded with them not to.

“That’s why these rascals behave like this. They get away with everything ‘cos women don’t react.
“No. no. Listen to me first and then decide whether to give him a dressing down’.

I told him about the blunder I made. They had a good laugh.

“Never smile at a man unless you are 200% sure you know him”, they advised.

Times must have changed a lot since my mother-in-law’s days, I thought ruefully.

Ever since, I don’t smile, even at my husband, if I see him outside the house unless I’m sure it’s him and not someone who resembles him.


  1. ROTFL!! thanks for this dose..i was laughing too hard..esp as i reached the last line...though I have had my share of misunderstood identities, it never had the extreme climax as this!!;)

    well now I understand why woman dont smile much these days.. :-(

  2. Talking about smiles, I distinctively remember the ad on Times (when I was student in Bangalore, back them Bangalore was fun, not anymore) by MRF on the smiley face. They came out with this yellow smiley face placard that you carry with when driving. You could flash it to your co-drivers when they did something nice, like give you space to pass etc and it made their day as well as yours. It was like telling thanks for being nice. This particular ad had a column where people related how and when they used their smiley face and what effect it had.

    Time passed and I found myself working in the middle-east where I am still. One day I read an article on the paper about a particular incident where an Arab guy trips and fall while walking along the road side. He picks himself up to see a girl smiling at him. He gets angry and animated at her. She was waiting besides her car which had a punctured tire being replace by a helpful cop (yeah cops in this part of the world do that). The cop gets up and arrests the man for using foul language towards the girl. Here too, the center piece was the smile.
    I laughed all day about that at office thinking about the man’s predicament and what a day he had. (What innovative methods of landing up in jail.)

    That evening I went to park to chit chat with my friend, which we occasionally do. I related this incident to him and animatedly do it, pointing to the road illustrating where the girl must have stood when he fell etc etc. Suddenly one Arab dude comes over and angrily asks us something in Arabic. He points to the opposite direction to where we sat and that’s when we noticed two girls standing there. I tried to explain to him that we spoke little Arabic. He responded in broken English as to why I was pointing at his girl friends and laughing at them. That’s when we realised the situation we had landed up in. This dumbass though that we were making a pass at those Arab girls (a big crime here especially when the accused happened to be non-Arab Asian). We moved our head and hands sidewise telling no, you getting us wrong here. At this point he was literally shouting his lungs out (another Arab thing), and we slowly started backing out all the time animatedly hinting that he had misunderstood us. Thank our lucky stars all he did was shout and before anyone else could join him, we scooted out of there.

    Its being more than a year now and I have never gone back there, and nor have I ever smiled or laughed in public not to myself or anyone else.

  3. @ mathew
    thanks.u r always generous with your compliments:-)
    @ zerogravity
    an excellent matter for a blog!

  4. and my mom have had incidents in those lines..she never recognizes faces..
    And doesnt smile when someone smiles at her..and I compensate for her by smiling ear to ear..[well,thats a grin to be exact]..
    and once a drunk started following us coz i did so thinking he is my moms friend..
    Then on, I am miserly with smiles..just around my mom..;)

  5. ROFL esp the last line :) I also have this problem in identifying faces or sometimes to match faces and names.. Because of that I'm generous with my smile :) Hope I don't end up in such situations..

  6. lol!!

    When I read your MIL's advice I was like "nooo dont listen to her" cos some men are like leeches...even a hint of a smile and they think it is a come on!!

  7. ROFTLOL.....

    thats simply hillarious !!! lol....

    Beware... now even smiles invite trouble !!!


  8. Tanta daang!
    Thanks for this :D

    Great post.

  9. Concluding line is just hilarious.
    Your MIL must have been very naive to give such advice. :-)

  10. Boy am I familiar with this story! More than twice I have smiled at a wrong face that looked like another face I knew! Think I had blogged about it!
    But this was hilarious KT! :-D


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