Sunday, September 22, 2013

Look-See

I'm one of those people who likes going places, but doesn't particularly enjoy getting there. Early morning wake-up calls, cab rides to the airport, queues at check-in, hustling to get a seat you can settle in before boarding announcements are made, the long lines that build up in total defiance of the fact that only select row numbers have been called out for by ground staff - it's all too predictable and monotonous and makes even non sci-fi fans think longingly of Star Trek style evaporation and re-assemblage at destination. 

But there are small joys - the occasional well made cup of coffee, spells of quiet, and airport bookstores that sell Harper's well-designed and entirely-too-appealing Agatha Christie books for only 199 rupees a pop. I buy them even when I've already packed another book for the explicit purpose of reading en route. Agatha Christie! 199 rupees! Cover art! Need I say more? 

And so I recently bought myself a copy of 'Murder on the Orient Express,' featuring Poirot with his little grey cells and Belgian affectations. It's a book that makes for truly enjoyable reading, but what struck me most about it was a particular scene early on in the narrative in which Poirot, eating alone in the Orient Express' first-class dining car, spends his time observing his fellow passengers and 'sizing them up.' He looks at them and makes assumptions about what they might be like, playing a detective's version of 'connect the dots' on his day off. It made me think about the last time I had really looked at a stranger, paid attention to her, tried to learn something about her from the way she dressed, spoke or moved, and I couldn't bring a single instance to mind. 

When did I stop looking at people and noticing their oddities? Did this non-seeing start with digital music players and become cemented by cellphones and smartphones? Are people less striking and interesting today than they were when Christie wrote? Do we get enough and more of each other through relentless newspaper and television coverage and web-based chatter? It isn't cultural conditioning, for sure. Indians can never be accused of being too polite to stare. In fact, we've probably raised the global stakes on creepy once-overs and insistent violations of personal space. And yet - in looking at a person, many of us don't really think about her (or him). We slap on a label - cool/not, hot/not, from boondocks/not - and leave it at that.  

Anonymity is a kind of liberation, of course, but have we lost the twin arts of observation and deduction? Should we be more curious about the people around us, what they might be like, and what they might do? Should we be paying more attention to what's happening around us - literally around us - as opposed to exclusively staying on top of the big news stories of the moment? I know I need to do more on all of these counts.

There is one place where the art of noticing and spotting is thriving - the Internet, with its hundreds (if not thousands) of street-style and urban portraiture blogs.Some of these bloggers are good at what they do. Others are somewhat twee and/or labored. Either way, I wouldn't want them to become my custodians of observation. Observation can so personally rewarding, why delegate it to someone else? Obviously, I'm not advocating for making strangers uncomfortable and being intrusive. But developing a certain quality of attention to them could make spaces and places less anodyne. Even if that space is an airport on Monday morning. 

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