A rift on the road

There they were, coming apart right in front of me. A man wearing a moustache, walking fast, turning around to spit out angry words. A harsh, loud, “Get Lost! Get away from me!”

A girl followed, a few steps behind. Skinny-fit jeans and pointy heels. She murmured something I couldn’t quite hear, but I caught her tone. It was halfway between placatory and indifferent. I slowed down until both could overtake me, allowing them a chance to get away from this fraught moment with a modicum of dignity. It was a moment in which two people, held together by God alone knows what force, were coming apart at their own seam. There was no way of knowing whether this moment would decide the rest of their lives or whether it was a scene that played itself out frequently in this relationship. Perhaps he did get away from her. Perhaps she got him in the end.

It is funny how so much of our private business, even our inner lives, spills out into the streets every day. The most private conversations are conducted in full public hearing. On the sidewalk, in trains and buses, and more recently, inside shared cabs, I overhear — and politely pretend not to be overhearing — dozens of young people fighting, flirting, or just making the sort of ordinary confessions that they may never make in the hearing of friends or colleagues. If they’re not together, then they’re walking about, phone pressed to their ears. A girl giggling about how many holidays she’s already planning, and inviting a boy to come visit her, even though she does have a flatmate, but it will be okay. Or a young man, walking in tight circles on the sidewalk, saying “Hmm.... Um... Uh-huh?” for a good forty minutes. Or a middle-aged woman shouting into the phone, “No, don’t call me! Don’t call me. And don’t come crying to me when she’s chewed you up and spat you out.” Or a young man saying, “Oh, shut up and wait up. You know you don’t have to go just yet. Don’t act so pricey.”

In Indian cities, these conversations acquire an additional bittersweet flavour, given that there is such risk associated with love. Most citizens have very little privacy at home. Certainly, single individuals having their own bedrooms is very rare. But even if they do have bedrooms, they don’t always feel free to express themselves with other family members listening in. And so, they take their most difficult conversations outdoors. In Mumbai, I’ve often spotted many young people talking outside a residential building. It is a reasonably safe place to hang about, and they do not particularly care if strangers can hear them.

I sometimes wonder if outdoor public spaces are not essential to the safe enactment of intense private emotion. Perhaps it is easier to act with restraint, to remember that one must not behave like a possessed demon or throw things at each other in the presence of other people who do not particularly care how this whole affair turns out. And how much easier it is to walk and talk, side by side, without having to look at each other’s faces. One need not be felled by a smile that does not quite reach the eyes, at least not immediately. One can catch one’s breath even as one is being disembowelled. One can hurry away, like that moustachioed man hurrying away from the petite woman, crossing the road so that the rift is manifest.

The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 12:48:06 AM |

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