The kindness of strangers


She was never that keen on meeting new people, 
but when strangers appeared in her life, journalist 
Olivia Gagan started to change her mind.

I had spent the year before feeling, quite frankly, stuck. Stuck in a job in London, UK, that I had been in for years. Stuck in an apartment that was starting to feel too small for all the things I wanted to do with my life. I was tired of going to the same office day in, day out. Tired of taking the same route home. Tired of walking around the same places during my lunch break.

All signs pointed to me needing to move on, to take some risks, but for some reason I couldn’t work up the nerve to do it. I knew 
I was lucky to have no major problems—I had my health, wonderful friends, a roof over my head—but, still, I was dissatisfied. I was living 
life on a loop, and I was feeling cynical and bored.

I was also not particularly interested in welcoming newcomers into my world. I’m a sceptic by nature, questioning of everyone I meet. Instead of embracing strangers, I prefer to spend my time with friends I know well and love, relationships that have been decades in the making. Strangers, whether they be romantic ones, potential new friends or maybe somebody new to work with, did not feature on my radar. Which, in retrospect, might make it very clear why I found myself sitting at a bar with friends one night, pushing my drink around, complaining that nothing in my life was changing.

Dancing in India

And then—as tends to happen—fate started throwing out chances for me to grow; it was just up to me to notice, and take them. The first came when a colleague invited me to her wedding in Delhi. It was expensive, it would use up all my holiday time, I knew no one at the wedding other than the bride… but I went anyway.

India is not a country where you can easily be alone. In cities, there’s no room for solitude: elbows jostle; hot, damp bodies press against each other; someone is shouting in your ear at every turn. Indian weddings, too, are big, beautiful, loud and lavish affairs. I arrived at the hotel where the three-day wedding was to take place and was immediately sent down to the gym. I wanted to rest up first in my room, but no: the bride informed me I needed to learn a dance routine, and fast.

This was because of the sangeet ceremony. It’s a traditional part of an Indian wedding; a night where the guests perform music, dance and poetry for the bride and groom. So in a hot dance studio, I was learning a bhangra routine with the other guests, who ranged from students to school friends of the bride, and from Mumbaikars to New Yorkers.

Dance is an incredible way to get to know people. You are sharing physical space, working together to try and create something, to be in tune with each other. We were all in hysterics 
as we spun and shimmied, trying to memorize the routine for the following night. By the time the wedding ended, I’d danced, shared stories and talked for days—and realized how rarely I had bothered to make conversation with strangers in the past.

  • The complete story ‘The kindness of strangers’ can be found in Issue 27.

Text Olivia Gagan Illustration Yelena Bryksenkova