" What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare....."
I wish the late W. H Davies had visited India. He would have never written this poem "Leisure" , irrespective of the age in which he would have visited India; not "his" age, but age as in "which century"......
Staring is a national pastime. It is democratic, and free, you can do it as long as you want, where you want, when you want, at whoever you want, and any verbal objection from anyone associated with a stare-e, is always countered by a question about your parentage and its connection to the ownership of the public place, where all this staring is happening.
About 35 years ago, when I lived in a University residence hall meant for families, the silence of a Sunday evening was suddenly shattered by a commotion and shouting, about someone /something on fire. There were a lot of folks running and rushing about, and turned out that a young wife had accidentally managed to overturn a lit kerosene stove across her synthetic sari. She had rushed out with her husband, shouting for help, and crying out. When we reached with burn ointments, ice and rugs to smother flames, and were trying to comfort and help the lady and her husband in trauma till the ambulance arrived, at a radius of about 12 feet from us, all around, were about 50 folks, from the adjoining floors, men and women, with horror stricken faces, staring, at the badly burnt woman, whispering, but not moving . The lady could see all their faces, she was still conscious then, and was pleading with us. I often wonder to this day what must have passed through her mind seeing the shocked faces.
While a traffic accident on badly planned roads makes a serious dent in the fortunes of both automobiles and humans, and some good Samaritan often turns up to help those in need of medical aid, I have never understood the concept of rushing and gathering around to stare at the injured , lying on the ground, beside bashed up cars. Mind you, the traffic doesn't stop. It kind of slows down in involuntary respect while passing by, and then carries on. We are like that, only.
Sometimes road rage happens. Mostly between a two wheeler and a 4 wheeler. What gets the starers particularly excited is the David and Goliath aspect. The 2 wheeler rider, advancing threateningly at the car, his bike lying on the ground after a particularly traumatic stoppage. Some guy in glares emerging from the car. Sometimes, there is collar holding after a initial wordy offensive duel. Occasionally, fisticuffs till the cops come. But within seconds, there is a huge crowd, gathered , from places you never knew, standing around, not willing to intervene, but whispering and commenting amongst themselves, staring from close quarters, at the human and metal surface dents. Things are of course additionally exciting if one of the drivers is a woman.
While it is entirely possible that our roads are designed keeping such staring crowds in mind, I have a growing suspicion that the modern architecture of some of our public spaces, clearly caters to this oft-ignored, uniquely Indian, staring community.
The Mumbai International Airport has been in the throes of massive construction. Still is. And things keep looking different every time I visit the arrivals area. This time, it has taken on the nature of a plaza. You emerge from the airport doors, with your bags, searching eyes, and a longing for airconditioning, into a huge square, bounded on three sides by railings. There is no other Meeting Point , as such, for travelers , where you go and wait, and there is no one announcing anything. You kind of hope, the person coming out sees you, and so a good place along the railing is a useful idea. This is it.
Consequent to the Indian habit of making arrivals and departures a celebrated family event, for which hordes arrive , sometimes in buses, these railings are chock a block with folks waiting for travelers to emerge, small children trying to entertain themselves trying to climb in and out between the horizontal bars, assorted officials walking around importantly, in the square, with id-cards around their necks. Along with such family folks, there is another breed of folks, from hotels, in suits (at the height of a 40 degree summer), carrying plaques, slung across the top horizontal railing, bearing names of folks they have come to meet and greet and pick up.
Several passengers were emerging , wondering about the heat, in Bermudas and tees, towering over the railings, staring at the plaques,and trying to read . Not finding their names, they could not decide where to go, and stood around, avidly watched by the audience lining the three sides of the plaza railings.
Some would place calls, smile, and continue to stand. Some kind of paced around with their wheely luggage. This one guy, stood right in the centre, smiling at everyone, watching the names on plaques every now and then, and even beamed with interest at the various passenger pilgrims returning from Haj, carrying quantities of Holy Water , who were being effusively greeted by delighted families.
Suddenly there was alert look, the smile widened, and the entire audience stared as he decisively moved towards a suited , booted plaque type bearing his name.
We almost clapped.
In the meanwhile, some more suited hotel types had actually intruded into my elbow space on the railing, by shoving part of their plaque so much into where I was standing, that someone may have mistaken me, despite the absence of a suit, as one of them.
I requested the guy to confine himself to his space and not intrude. The rexin/plastic of the plaque enhanced the heat , and the hard edges poked where I was standing.
"Ma'am, this place is reserved for us", a suited type , with a smirk.
" Please. This place is for everyone receiving their guests. And besides, you can't shove plaques under my elbow like this. It hurts. " Me.
" No No. You need to stand elsewhere. This is reserved for us .." The defiant suited type.
I adjust my decibel level a notch higher. (Always works).
"Says who ? Can you show me a notification anywhere around that supports what you say ? " My dormant Mumbai fighting spirit is itching.
""Aisa kuch nahi hota hai (=there isn't anything like a notification), but this is reserved for us" . The suited chap.
Some other suited types are listening. Gathering around him. Nodding. The herd mentality. Protecting one's own.
All of them staring at me.
My blood boils.
"Look, you either show me a rule/notice that supports what you say, or move on. There are hundreds of families here, waiting to receive folks, and we are the default option. Considerations of commerce may count elsewhere, not here. You want a special place, ask the authorities, and get one. In the meanwhile, move that plaque from under my elbow, unless you want me to shove it across the railing. " Me. Fed up.
The guy on my right, someone who has come to receive his parents returning from the Haj pilgrimage, nods, and mutters saying, these fellows never listen, and are very pushy. They even obtain access inside the plaza square, and accost travellers there.
I turn to the left. Mobilize to attack, as such. The plaque moves just before I prepare to push it off . The cool railing feels good in the searing midday sun. There is, of course , a decent modern architectural canopy above us, the Mumbai airport's recent concession to folks who up to now, braved a searing sun, and torrential rains.
I look up.
There is a whispering group of suited and booted plaque types, staring at me. They still inhabit the railing area to my left. They still block various family folks and children from standing there, claiming some non-existent rules. Its not like I was itching for a fight. A slight move by him to the left, would have helped. But here, folks get creative, and fib about nonexistent rules; a uniform intimidates people; and some people even mistake these guys for airport staff and do whatever they say.
My guest arrives about ten minutes later. We move off the aforementioned railing, and traipse off towards the luggage and parking.
Followed by a large number of suited and booted stares, breathing a sigh of relief. Along with, possibly, a few stares, by those, who thought this was a riveting morning event, Middle Class Senior Citizen Lady Vs Young Suited and Booted Execs from five star hotels.....
Ten minutes later, I am navigating through traffic on one of Mumbai's worst roads, when a young female voice from the seat behind pipes up.
"You know, Aai(=Ma) always gets into a fight , and then everyone stares......".