It is not visual trespassing to crane one’s neck and breathe down someone else’s neck to peer at the newspaper the person in front is reading. The affected party is not likely to complain that the news was received in confidence.
However, we cannot take these liberties at other places. For instance, you cannot eat popcorn out of another man’s bucket in a cinema house, even if the man sat next to you for the entire first half. The possibility of his offering you popcorn is even lesser. Ogling even someone irresistibly staggering is vulgar. Newspaper, in contrast, turns into public property as soon as you board a bus or a train with it.
In libraries and waiting rooms, too, they show some courtesy. Aboard transport, however, you assert your legitimate right over the co-traveller’s newspaper. On several journeys, I have sneaked a newspaper from a sleeping passenger’s lap without his chiding me when he woke up. It’s an unwritten commandment of travel conduct — thou shalt not reprimand the newspaper thief.
It is normal for supplements and city editions to disappear from your side within minutes of your settling down with the main edition. Often a stranger’s hand appears mid-air like a drone and retracts quietly after drawing out a sheet from the paper you are reading. Here, the social ethics are on the side of the gatecrasher. You are expected to brook the transgression.
One day, just as I had opened my newspaper, a fellow passenger asked me with educated refinement: “May I read the editorial page?” It felt as though he had asked for the dessert that came with the dinner order. Thereafter, the fellow sat engrossed in the editorial page, while I, despite being happily married, was forced to idle with the matrimonial page. I didn’t have the temerity to disturb the man in his meditative consideration of the editorial opinion.
It’s normal for me to carry my newspaper aboard a bus or a train and usually by the time the journey is about to end, the pages are in uneven distribution among the passengers sitting at odd angles in the extended periphery. Besides, with passengers boarding and alighting at every stoppage, any knowledge of the original ownership is almost lost.
The headlines are on one seat, sports news on another, and the Sensex and nifty somewhere out of sight. I am left only with glossy flyers advertising free heart check-up, cheap knee replacement, and pizza combos. I have now made it a practice to reclaim the dismembered parts of the paper’s body before I get off and stack them neatly for the free reading of passengers who will board after me.
Newspapers are many-faced and one can’t press ownership rights too hard. If you hold one face to yourself, the other page is for everyone else to see. I have observed people hover close to the newsstands on railway stations and bus stands, gobbling greedily the scoops from folded papers. It is not always easy to have your paper and read it too.
(The writer teaches at Punjabi University Regional Centre, Bathinda)