Shaming though it undoubtedly is, I have to confess that I am one of the world’s eavesdroppers. I go through the day, snatching up fragments of other people’s conversations, trying to get a glimpse into their lives through that snapshot in time.
Truth be told, I treat the people around me as performers who are putting up a private cabaret, entirely for my entertainment and amusement – or even as inspiration for my next column. As the late great Nora Ephron once said, everything is copy.
There was a time when I used to practise my craft in restaurants. I loved listening in on awkward conversations of people on first dates. I giggled on the inside as ladies who lunched tore into one of their absent friends. I eavesdropped on the silences that marked long-married couples dining together; more telling than any words could have been. I squirmed as I overheard a couple breaking up messily at the next table. And yet, I kept on listening.
Those days, alas, are long over. No, I still go to restaurants. And yes, I still love to eavesdrop. But sadly, these days restaurants don’t offer much in the way of conversations that can be listened to. Everyone is far too busy taking pictures of their food and Instagraming it, posting pithy food reviews on Twitter or updating their Facebook to do anything as mundane as talk to one another.
Thankfully, however, the voyeur in me has found a different venue to feed my habit. Actually make that several different venues; basically anywhere where I go walking in the evening, whether it is Lodi Garden in Delhi or Marine Drive in Mumbai.
Unlike almost everyone I know, I don’t listen to music when I go walking. Nor do I keep my eyes glued to my phone, scrolling down sundry social media sites, messaging a friend or emailing the office. No, that’s not for me. I keep my eyes peeled and ears on alert to catch the conversations happening around me. And trust me, it’s great entertainment.
Let’s take last evening, when I went on a walk down Marine Drive. There were the usual sights that we all take for granted. The pairs of lovers sitting on the railings, secure in their own invisibility because their backs were turned to the milling crowds on the streets. The sun making a spectacle of its everyday task of sinking into the dark blue waters of the Arabian Sea. And the evening walkers, marching determinedly on, white earphones peeking out of their ears.
But I wasn’t interested in any of them. It was the people who were walking in twos, talking animatedly to one another, that interested me.
There was the young couple, clad head to toe in Lycra, the mom pushing a buggy with a sleeping child in it, the dad carrying baby supplies in his backpack. Mum: “...I don’t care what your mother thinks. This is my child, not hers.” Dad: “She’s only trying to help. You keep saying that no one helps and then when she does...”
That’s all I caught as I walked briskly past them. But in those two sentences I could hear their entire story. First-time parents working long hours in office, the doting grandmother filling in as unpaid babysitter, the insecure young mom scared that she was losing control of her child, the harried young father caught between two strong maternal forces. Shorn of its details, it was a story as old as time itself.
A little further on, I fell into step with two 50-something ladies, walking with the companionable air of old friends. Lady one: “You know that he’s gone into rehab, na?” Lady two: “I know. I don’t understand why her parents don’t just call off the engagement.” Lady one: “Arre, he used to spend nights there...” Lady two: “Sorry, but I don’t approve of all this nonsense!”
There you have it: the culture clash that characterises today’s India. Two young people, engaged to be married, indulging in a bit of pre-marital sex, leading to shock-horror all around. Mix in a bit of recreational drug-taking and you have the making of a society scandal. Will the rehab take? Will they live happily ever after? Sadly, I’ll never know.
As I turned around to retrace my steps to where my car was parked, I found myself behind a couple who were done with necking at the sea’s edge and were now walking arms entwined, hips joined, whispering sweet nothings to one another. The phrases ‘love you’ ‘love you more’ floated happily in the air, until with a loud gasp, the girl disentangled herself, and whispered agitatedly to her boyfriend, “Stay away, that’s my chacha in front”.
We may tell ourselves that we are living in a modern, liberal society. But when two teenage lovers come face to face with family elders in public, they still experience the same panic that generations before them knew all too well. Clearly, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
That’s just one of the life lessons I’ve learnt on my evening walks. Stay tuned for further updates in the months ahead.
From HT Brunch, February 21, 2016
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