Sonakshi Srivastava
Strangers in a City

I made a move in August last year. The move, prompted by a switch of jobs, induced immense worry. Thoughts branching into sub-thoughts found a fertile flourish in my head — “What would the new city be like? Would I be able to acclimatize soon? Would my accommodation quarters be decent? Would I be able to befriend my flatmates? Who would they be?” It felt strange — to navigate into a familiarly unfamiliar territory after a gap of three years due to the pandemic. At the heart of this strangeness, perhaps, was the profound fear of being a stranger again, in a new city.


A stranger is a mysterious subject. To Georg Simmel, a stranger presents the paradox of attachment and detachment. Working closely with a vocabulary of measure, Simmel philosophizes on the sociological nature attributed to and afforded by a stranger. A figure of potentialities, a stranger emerges as the liminal character, who, by virtue of his distance is at once “outside” the group but also within it.

To be a stranger shakes the idea of an ordered rhythm, extracting one from their place of familiarity and positioning them in the ordered premises of another’s existence. Thus, to be a stranger means to be out of place. An intertwined energy of repulsion and distance allows the stranger to be a member of the local group, even though he does not belong innately to it — much like waste — matter out of place.


It was a week after my move when his curious pose caught my attention. It was a late August evening, and the sun had mellowed to lend the sky an amber hue. Clutching a voluminous plastic bag, he seemed to be on a hunt for a suitable spot to relieve himself of his trash. I recognized a glow of shared vulnerability in that particular instance. He was a stranger as much as I, and he was as eager to get rid of his trash as was I in this strange vicinity. And, as if to acknowledge my mental observation or perhaps to affirm one of his own, he turned back and nodded his head silently.

I wanted to walk up to him, to ask if he too, had recently moved to this city. But the repulsion of exposing ourselves through our trash bags was a greater distance to bridge than the actual distance between us. Our true selves were threatened. We stood there like two helpless dots, bogged down by the weight and disgust for our waste.


In an essay titled La Poubelle Agréée, the Italian author Italo Calvino talks about the most gratifying house chore — that of taking out the garbage.

In his act of dumping trash, Calvino is quick to discover a connection between the family poubelle and the communal poubelle. He remarks that the act of dumping individual trash into the communal trash “takes on the significance of a passage from private to public”. To Calvino, the exercise of taking the trash out is not so much an exercise in individuality as much as it is re-affirming “the role that public sphere, civic duty, and the constitution plays in our lives”. In throwing the trash away, Calvino acknowledges his existence within a certain social order, describing himself as “the first link in a chain of operations crucial for collective cohabitation”, thereby reaffirming his faith in institutions “without which (he) would be buried under (his) own rubbish in the snail shell of (his) individual existence”.

Calvino further ruminates on the etymology of “agréée” which means the same as the English meaning of the word “agree” and quite incisively draws attention to the social contract one has with the city — “the agreement with the city” of carrying the trash out. The agreement is almost sacred in nature, a ritual that demands not to be broken. He comes to the meat of the matter and declares that taking out the trash should “be interpreted simultaneously as a contract and as a rite, a rite of purification, the abandoning of the detritus of myself”. Calvino elaborates his thesis further by comparing the pleasure of gleaning himself away from his trash to the act of taking a dump; “to that of defecation, of feeling one’s guts unburdening themselves” so much so that these acts perturb the instability of one’s identity so that “there is no possible confusion between what I am and what is unalterably alien”. Waste becomes constitutive of the identity of our selves.


We walk towards each other, our trash bags in our hands.

In him, I see a reflection of my own self — the distance reduces, and a used ink bottle in his trash bag captivates my eyes. An intimate knowledge of my trash bag would allow him a glimpse into my private life. How intimate is this moment here between two strangers, where the unfamiliar begins to turn familiar. However, this moment also allows one to reflect on the universal essence of making communities inclusive despite the differences, despite the threat to our ordered identity. It is by accommodating differences, and filling these gulfs with warmth that one may envision a cosmopolitan ethics of living.

No possible confusion exists now between what I am and what is unalterably alien. All it takes is the acknowledgement of our individual baggage.



Calvino, Italo. The Road to San Giovanni. Penguin, 2009.

Simmel, Georg. On Individuality and Social Forms. University of Chicago Press, 1971.


Sonakshi Srivastava is a writing tutor at Ashoka University. Her MPhil dissertation was on the biopolitics of ability and debility. She is a translation fellow at South Asia Speaks where she is translating a provincial novel by Jaishankar Prasad into English under the mentorship of Arunava Sinha. Her writings have appeared in or are appearing in Hakara, Connect ASAP, The Bilingual Window, dishzine, chicken+bread zine, finger foodmag, potluckzine, etc. Her areas of interests include aesthetics and critical theory, animal studies and ethics, food studies, and discard studies, among others.