When I finally stepped off the train at Churchgate, I congratulated myself on my iron self-control. After all, I had spent the entire journey from Andheri clinging desperately to the rail by the entrance of the compartment, gazing into the distance with a studiedly blank expression on my face, chanting (in my head) this mantra: “I will not laugh. I will not laugh. I will not laugh” and I was so distracted, I was convinced I was going to fall off the train.
That's because I had spent the whole journey eavesdropping on a conversation between two college students. One of them had the most convoluted love life I'd ever come across outside a television soap opera, and I had been so entertained by her account of it and her friend's earnest advice, that I had completely forgotten about the book in my bag - a murder mystery at that! — that I had planned to finish on the train.
I was not at all perturbed about the fact that I was eavesdropping — a dirty, slimy and distinctly un-gentlemanly thing to do, according to Enid Blyton and all the other favourite authors of my childhood. I was only concerned about the fact that I should not be caught doing it. Hence the “I will not laugh” mantra; hence my self-congratulation on arrival at Churchgate. I had not laughed so, once again, my fellow citizens in Mumbai had provided me with free amusement.
I’ve always been an eavesdropper. “Watching (and listening to) the world go by,” was how I usually described this inclination. Of late however, I’ve fallen into the habit of calling a spade a bloody shovel, so I now proclaim this loud and clear: I am a serial eavesdropper. And I love it. It provides me with endless amusement and entertainment — and it’s completely free.
It’s easy to be an eavesdropper in Mumbai. Lack of space in this crowded city means we’re all practically sitting in each other’s laps anyway, so tuning into the conversations of random strangers requires no effort at all. I’ve eavesdropped while standing in line, at restaurants and coffee shops, at malls and doctors’ waiting rooms, on trains and buses, at cinemas and theatres — wherever there are people. Some of this eavesdropping is inadvertent, but there are times when I deliberately go out of my way to flap my ears in some strangers’ direction.
Nothing makes me happier than pottering into a coffee shop by myself or with a friend equally addicted to eavesdropping, finding a table on the fringes of a large-ish group of chattering young people, and settling back comfortably for an hour or so to listen.
You hear the most interesting and entertaining things, some of which can keep you happy for years. For instance, to this day, my friend and I can relate almost verbatim a conversation we overheard nearly seven years ago at Just Around The Corner in Bandra, between a wannabe filmmaker and a wannabe actress networking furiously with each other, each clearly hoping (but not actually saying so) that the other one would give her or him a break.
By the time the wannabe filmmaker had informed the wannabe actress that he had just returned from New Zealand from a music video shoot, and the wannabe actress had assured the wannabe filmmaker that she could dance and she had a valid passport, my friend and I were finished. There was no way we could catch each other’s eye; we just leapt off our seats, paid the bill and shot off to collapse, laughing hysterically, in an auto headed home.
You get more than free entertainment when you’re eavesdropping. You get useful advice too, even if it hasn’t actually been directed at you. Standing in line to enter the auditorium a couple of weeks ago at Prithvi Theatre, I overheard what seemed to be members of one family earnestly arguing about the best seats in the auditorium. The advantages and disadvantages of seats right in the middle of the top row and right in the middle of the bottom-most row (the seats on the sides were completely dismissed) were listed and dispassionately weighed against each other. Eventually a consensus was reached — the middle of the bottom-most row was judged the absolute best section in the auditorium. When the doors were finally opened, that’s where the family headed. Closely followed by me.
And it’s thanks to eavesdropping that I recently had the finest meal of my life at Gajalee, a restaurant that is, in any case, one of my favourite eating-out places. I was waiting, bored, for a friend, when I listened to a very small — maybe about six or seven years old — but highly opinionated young lady telling the waiter exactly what she wanted to eat — and how it was all to be made. It sounded excellent so when my friend arrived, I repeated her order. It was the best meal I had had in ages. I wouldn’t have had it if I hadn’t eavesdropped.