On The Nature Of Little Gestures

Josh Wilburne

The other night, I was watching the tired flow of Karu Site’s night market.

I watched shop owners turn lights off, shut windows close. I watched as smoke rose from half-spent fire woods and drifted in lazy clouds along the narrow path between shops.

I watched small groups of smokers as they hung around, burning faint sparks that peered in the dark like the eyes of tired nocturnal animals.

On one corner, one mai shayi, was at work at a small table shop. I watched as he switched tea between the two cups he held on his left and right hands. Every time he did this, he took one hand higher, and the other one he took lower, so that the tea formed longer streams with every switch. He repeated this about five times. When he was done, he gestured at the customer with his palms turned upwards, and then pointed at the table.

I walked up to him and ordered tea.

He repeated what I’d seen him do with the tea cups. When he pointed at the table, I looked; no drop of tea had spilled on it.

“How did you do that?” I asked.

“Practice,” he said.

“How long?” I asked.

“Thirty-five years.”

“Thirty-five years? Self-taught?”

He shook his head. He’d learnt from a friend, Hassan. They’d grown up together in a small village in Kano. Hassan was the son of a tea maker.

I asked when last he’d seen Hassan. The man stared into space a while. It’d been twenty years, he said, maybe more.

“Do you know what could have happened to him?” I asked.

He shook his head. He didn’t.

As I sipped tea, more customers arrived. As he served them, my mind drifted off to a small village in Kano. To an old friendship lost to time and distance.

As I watched the mai shayi, I saw a man carry with him the relics of a vague and distant past. I saw memories of childhood wrapped up, condensed and expressed in an elaborate art of tea making.

Sometimes I think of small gestures. I wonder if the little things we see people do sometimes carry an underlying history with them. I wonder if these small gestures might be the little ways we pay homage to old memories.

The mai shayi learnt from Hassan, and Hassan too learnt from his father, who learnt from someone else. I wonder how far back in time that line goes. I wonder if by watching the mai shayi perform his art that night, I was looking back in time at an infinite web of tea-makers and hand gestures spun over many nights, over many table shops.

It’s staggering to imagine how much of each other we can hold in ourselves. How a smile or a manner of walking can hold several past lives and generations of stories told and retold through time, until the entirety of it all becomes wrapped, condensed, and expressed in the small gestures we see.

Sometimes, when I’m walking down the road or in a bus, I’d take a moment to pause and watch. After that day with the mai shayi, I began to see a certain type of rhythm in every small gathering of people. I’d watch people laugh, argue and chatter, and I’d see a complex system of memories and past experiences mingle, collide, flow.

And in that flow, I’d see people trade little bits of themselves.

We carry the relics of our past with us. At first vivid as day, until slowly, time waters everything down, so that we’re left only with vague memories that constantly struggle to reach out from within us.

It’s a struggle in which we all are participants.

A struggle which bends and shapes our lives into an infinite loop of memories. And in each part of that loop, an infinite web of stories lay buried deep, waiting to be expressed. Stories of childhood friendship, love, heartbreaks, and the likes.

I wonder if that truly is how we all might be connected.

Sometimes I think of gravity, planets, space.

I think of a space where all of our stories constantly orbit themselves. Sometimes their trajectories intercept and a clash of ideas happens — chaos. Sometimes the opposite happens and a type of consonance occurs.

And I think of randomness. I think of gestures that, on one hand, metamorphose to a first date, and maybe leads to two people growing old together. And on the other hand, the same gesture leads to something different.

And when I think of planets and space and randomness, I think of meaning. I wonder if there’s any chance of finding meaning in this sea of randomness. What if meaning eludes us because we have no way to recognise it?

But I think hope is something worth having.

We’re constantly wandering this space of stories in the hope that one day, we find someone whose path merges with ours in a type of mutual gravity. And that when it happens, we’re lucky enough to fall to the centre of each other’s lives.

And when that happens, two people carve small spaces where they carry themselves in each other, orbiting as one through time and space, creating new stories. Stories that become wrapped up over time, and condensed and expressed in little gestures.

When next you find yourself in a bus or train or a park bench, take some time to pause and watch. Look at the individual bursts of laughter, the different manners of speaking or walking, look at the way the smoker holds her cigarette. You’d realise it’s all an elaborate art of storytelling. And buried in those stories is a chance at self-discovery.

Think about it. If our lives fit into an infinite web of small gestures, memories and past experiences, isn’t there a chance that we just might find bits of ourselves in someone else?

What if somewhere in our pasts our stories link with that of a total stranger?

Perhaps buried somewhere in the lives of two strangers might be the stories of an ancient, ancestral friendship between two budding mai shayis learning to master the art of tea making in a small village in Kano.

What if in the grand scheme of things, none of us really are strangers?

The universe is large and we play specks of dust in it. But expressed in every person is a summary of a whole. A synopsis to a larger story.

What if we are our ancestors and offspring? What if we are each other? TC mark

One story, told five ways…

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