'It is easier to make friends with strangers as they are non-judgmental.'
How would you like, for a few hours, to be with people who don't judge you?
Pooja Chordia knew she would.
As did her sister-in-law Priyanka Bardia.
And that's how the Serendipity Club was born.
"The underlying theme is that people you know from your daily life -- whether family, friends or colleagues -- always judge you because they know you. Since no one knows you here, they do not judge. We are in a non-judgmental space," says Pooja.
The club, which was founded this year, recently held their first event in Chennai.
"The idea," says Pooja, who is a chartered accountant and has been a life coach for 11 years, "is to make people connect. We encourage people to talk about themselves."
Priyanka, on the other hand, is a parenting coach who conducts workshops for parents.
The first meeting of the Serendipity Club -- which took place at the Butterfly Effect Cafe in Nandanam, a suburb of Chennai -- began with everyone introducing themselves.
They talked about their careers, where they came from, the good things that had happened in their lives and the challenges they had overcome.
They were also asked about the most precious gift they had received, how their parents had guided them and which friend had helped them the most.
Many of the attendees were not native to Chennai; they had come to the city with apprehension in their hearts and did not know the local language. But, as a participant put it, "Chennai grows on you."
The next task was to draw a name from a bowl.
This was the beginning of the second session, where two strangers -- linked by a chit that had put them together -- were seated at the same table.
Since an odd number of attendees had signed up for the event, Pooja partnered one of the guests.
The conversations started nervously, but soon there was no holding back as they shared their life's stories with total strangers. They spoke animatedly, laughed and looked like they were cherishing every moment. The noise level went up perceptibly.
Two of the attendees discovered they lived in the same building, one on the fourth floor and the other on the eighth.
"It's like the stories we share with passengers in long distance trains, something we might not discuss with our family," smiles Pooja.
Snacks were served as the pairs chatted away.
Soon, it was time for the individual conversations to end and everyone was asked to join the group.
Some seemed reluctant; their conversations were going so well.
A few of the attendees left to pick up their children from school or because of other commitments. The rest continued to chat; no one seemed to want the morning to end.
For 10 years, says Pooja, this idea had been germinating in her head until she decided to bring it to life with Priyanka.
She had experimented with it earlier. When she lived in Indore, where she owned and ran the Happy Cafe, she used to host one event a month; it would either be a meeting or a workshop. Ten to 15 people would attend each event.
This made her realise she could expand it into something more interesting.
"By coming to a Serendipity Club meeting, we are making a choice to usher in change in our lives," she says.
"There are human libraries abroad. You walk in, chose the person who looks interesting and listen to their life story.
"The Serendipity Club also talks about books and readers, but here both the books and the readers are coming in from outside. As we saw in the first session where they introduced themselves, everyone is a book and everyone is a reader."
She adds that, in the future, they will have a tribe of like-minded people and you can come and read a "human book".
But the main purpose, she confirms, is "that this is one more avenue of making friends. It is networking with like-minded people. It is easier to make friends with strangers as they are non-judgmental."
The Serendipity Club charges an entrance fee of Rs 999; those who attended the first meeting, however, got a discount and paid Rs 899. A yearly membership of Rs 10,000 gets you a no-cost invitation to two such meetings a month.
Applicants are screened before being invited to an event. Before the meeting a rule is set: No arguments or disagreements allowed.
At the first meeting, the youngest member was 16 years old and the oldest, 80. Only 13 per cent of the participants were male. Priyanka explains, "Women, more than men, are interested in joining us. Women are exploring new avenues. Most of them have a career. They come here to meet and make new friends."
A female participant said, "I am tired of going out with my husband's friends. For once I want to say, I am going out with my friends and would you like to join us?"
While there were more listeners than story tellers at the first event, the organisers expect more people to share their experiences in the future.
Pooja and Priyanka are discussing expansion plans too; they'd like to open Serendipity Clubs in other cities, particularly smaller cities where this concept does not exist.
Ruchita Gulecha, 24, a social media marketeer started out on her own seven months ago after working in other agencies for three years.
"I have a small client base and a team of five working with me," she says.
Ruchita liked the first Serendipity event. "I like people and I like networking. I get ideas during my conversation with other people. I am going to attend Serendipity meetings regularly. I am sure it will help me both in my personal life and in my professional career."
Harshita Ahuja, 28, a practising psychologist, also runs an online magazine Jharokha, in English and in Hindi.
Originally from Lucknow, she now lives in Chennai. She began online counseling during the pandemic and continues to do so now.
Harishta, who joined Serendipity because she wanted to meet new people and make new friends, says the meeting turned out to be better than she expected. "It also helps my magazine. I have realised that every human being is a book, a story that needs to be told.
"Mostly, people talk about the good things that have happened in their life. But I was happy that, here, people are sharing the scars in their life as well since the atmosphere is non-judgmental.
"We realise that we don't have to be perfect. People have to support each other. This club makes you realise that the usual idea that women bring each other down and are their own greatest enemies is totally wrong."
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com