I had said this earlier: If I am not writing, I am dreaming. I have a belated addendum to that disclosure: If I am not dreaming, I am people watching, or crowd watching.
Some friends knew about it although I was in denial, but I mostly kept it to myself due mainly to the self-doubts whether such a strange pastime would smack of being a voyeur, a stalker, a gawker, a pervert, or even a psychopath. Truth be told, I am one who indulges in weekend people-watching — shamelessly and without taking precautions — having memorised the wikiHow manual ‘How to Begin People Watching’.
It's the winter season that triggers the people-watching episodes in me. The exercise is not central to my social existence as other enthusiasts may deem. When I am done with entertaining my grandson in weekends, I rush back to Karama, Dubai's people-watching oasis, to catch the afternoon traffic and the evening shopper-diner crowd.
It started as a harmless hobby — it still is — during my undergraduate days. We typically had extra classes after the college dispersed in the afternoon. In the precious gap between the extra class and the normal session, we stood in the first-floor veranda of the building which housed our lecture room, watching a sea of boys, girls and teachers streaming out of the campus. It offered a bird's eye view of facial expressions, mannerisms, emotions and coquettishness of at least some among the crowd. It was a study in expressions, behavioural changes and body language when a male student locked eyes with the prettiest lady teacher, or any girl student on the campus.
The people watching I practised during my college days was neither innocently subconscious nor a fun way to pass time on the campus, but the exercise taught me how to see through people. A lifetime learning to navigate human trappings and the company of scheming and malicious people.
My post-graduate studies in people watching happened in Bombay where I moved in 1982. The iconic Victoria Terminus was my classroom. Standing in the annex hall where tickets were sold, I would watch the evening crowd that filled the concourse. Some sprinted to catch their trains, wanting to be with their loved ones, to breastfeed their babies, to bring back their little ones from babysitting, to take care of their ailing parents, to throw themselves into the arms of their partners, to scrub and shine a mountain of utensils until midnight, and to cry into the pillow cursing the trials and tribulations of marriage.
In the empty quarters of the large concourse, a modicum of commuters would wait impatiently, their eyes shifting between their wristwatch and the train schedules on the mammoth electronic boards. With desperation writ large on their faces, some would ultimately squeeze themselves into cramped bogies. The lucky ones would shyly hold the hands of their partners who came late and disappear into the sideways to have a bite. Mostly a plate of potato bonda.
Fast forward to Al Karama where I lived most of my Dubai life. The bustling district, with the metro station and myriad Arab and Asian restaurants and cafeterias, is a throwback to my Bombay days. Being residents of an empty nest, yours truly and partner, after our usual rounds of shouts and fights, would stroll in the vibrant Hamdan colony, a ghost town in the eighties. A well-populated area is the best place for crowd watching. With the cheapest order of "two cups of fresh-milk tea", we would tuck ourselves into the corner of a wayside cafeteria to indulge in the game unnoticed.
Thanks to the Dubai Municipality, the marble seats that have sprung up in every nook and corner of the other quarter of Karama are vantage points for free-of-cost crowd watching. There's nothing more exciting and profound than capturing the idiosyncrasies of fellow humans. No matter how good an actor they are, a human would give away some clues about himself or herself through their demeanour.
Think about returning home past midnight with a big cache of cues or observations about others and processing such inferences for the benefit of yourself. Vignettes from your people watching — an old man licking up an emerald lollypop, a grandma shopping for lingerie across the street, a woman shouting profanities into the phone, a young expat enjoying a video chat with his wife back home, an old couple fighting in the street, and a grandpa buying contraceptives from a pharmacy — enrich your worldview and understanding of people. You will then be awed by the reality that every human is a universe, flaunting his or her galaxies and blackholes on the visage, and this planet holds billions of universes. Such lessons help you become more empathetic, respectful and tolerant.
And the next time your partner insists he or she wants filter coffee for breakfast, and you want black tea, your bird watching lessons would come into play, prompting both of you to say:
"OK, let me make your black tea."
"Then, I'll make your filter coffee."
It's this people watching exercise that pushed me into narrative writing. The cues that I glean from the streets help me delineate my characters. They come alive as I drape them in words. And this certitude that "me too" is a victim of people watching and that someone somewhere in the world is dissecting my soul, possibly learning a lesson or two from my shortcomings is gratifying, indeed.
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