Life Watch

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The little girl sat on the window sill, watching life amble past.

It was late afternoon. Her parents were out, working. She, all of four years, was alone at home. It never bothered her, on the contrary. She preferred to be alone. Her house was on the road. One opened the front door, went down three steps and landed on the street. Easy access.

As a precaution, her parents padlocked the door on the outside. Though they knew she couldn’t open the door from within, yet they instructed her not to go near the door even if someone rang the bell. The main door of the house was made of narrow wooden slats arranged in squares. This left a lattice of large square holes through which candy or chocolate could be pushed in for the child to eat. The door was a joke, it was so flimsy.

But those were safe times. The word human hadn’t yet been bled dry of its essence through careless overuse. She was safe enough, as long as she was shut inside safely.

There was no television those days. The radio had very limited hours of broadcast. She flipped through her picture books, reading a sentence here and a sentence there. She played with her toys. She fashioned trucks out of sticks and beads. Those multicolored, round plastic beads were put to more use than could ever be imagined. They served as the snacks when she played house with her dolls, they had to serve as the wheels of any vehicle she was in the mood to drive that day, they served as ornaments, they were the house decoration. She was in bliss and wondered why her parents couldn’t work a little longer.

There were times when she neither wanted to read nor play with the toys. Then she’d sit on the window sill and watch life go by. She would Life Watch… and she loved it.

She looked at people. She learned people. Her curiosity fed her delight and both flew boundless. She particularly liked to look at those who walked past. The people on bicycles went past too fast. She ignored the occasional scooter rider.

The people on foot were the best. They gave her the widest window of observation. She loved to look at their clothes, the things they carried, their expressions, the way they carried themselves.

Later, she would pick up the most interesting of these people, and make up stories about them. She added color to her characters. On the basis of her observations, she would give them a background. She’d say things like- The woman in the green sari was so particularly dressed. Her sari was tied so well… the pleats sharp… the pallu exactly right. Her hair was parted and braided so neatly. The vermillion sindoor applied so well in the parting. Surely she must have a very neat house. She would be strict with her children, but she must love them deeply. And on it would go.

She saw those who wore their troubles on their sleeves. Their very posture was a reproach to the world. There were those who walked as if they were crawling on their knees, beaten by life; so beaten they had nothing left to fight with. There were those who smiled to themselves as they walked past, broadcasting their happiness. Then there were those whose straight spines and thrown back shoulders told their own stories. She loved those whose eyes were turned inward. Their spirit seemed at peace; their smiles came from deep within them.

She watched life with fascinated curiosity. Life smiled at her sometimes giving her a breath- taking peek at her secrets. The girl was addicted.

She wondered sometimes how those people would react if they knew that they were being stored away in the mental scrapbook of a curious child. Would it please them or would they frown at the impertinence? Did any of them have an idea how absorbed in their self- importance they appeared to a living plate of photographic film? Did they have any idea that they were becoming an indelible part of a little girl’s inner world?

When she was a little older and her parents were home, she would get closer to the people. She would sit on the steps leading down from the house. For hours she would sit there, fascinated. Sometimes she would have imaginary conversations with people in her head. Her conversations delighted her.

On a lazy Sunday morning, she was sitting on the steps. Her parents were sleeping in late. She crept out of bed, climbed up the square latticed door and expertly, silently unbolted the top bolt. Cautiously, she opened the door wide enough to slip out and sat down on the steps, bare- footed, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. She came out to watch the wedding procession- she’d heard the drums.

Fascinated, she watched. The groom was on a horse, his family- laden in finery- walking behind. His friends danced to the beat of the drums. Right opposite her door, the procession halted- to give the dancers a chance to dance out an entire number. The energy, the passion of the dancers fired her up. She couldn’t help joining them. One of the groom’s friends noticed her and swung her up on his shoulders to protect her from being jostled by the entranced dancers. She gripped his head firmly and bounced on his shoulders, throwing are chubby arms around, determined to dance too.

When the frenzy abated, the man swung her down and ruffled her hair, grinning. When the procession moved on, she followed it. She wanted to see that man grin at her again. She was lost to the world, unaware of her bare- feet, of her short frock with two buttons missing, her uncombed hair and her unwashed face. She just went.

It was many hours before her distraught parents managed to hunt her down and bring her home. They would never have been able to find her at all if a friend of her father’s hadn’t turned up home to ask whether her mom had gone to attend a wedding. He’d seen the child there, rather bedraggled- he told the father.

The scolding she got made her a little more prudent but she continued her Life Watch.

Shortly after that, they moved house.

The new house was a flat on the first floor. They lived in a small colony… barely a dozen families. There were hardly any people to watch. She was bored and restless but not for long.

Her father went into poultry farming. She loved the little balls of yellow fur that went bouncing around tirelessly all day. Their self- important absorption made her feel at home. Her Life Watch could continue.

She spent all her time after school sitting on a precarious stool inside the pens. For hours she would watch the impossible little things. Even though they looked identical, she managed to give expressions to their tiny faces. She knew she could look into the tiny black button of a chick’s eyes and figure out what it was thinking. She gave them names, collated their quirks and spun stories about them. Reincarnation was a necessity, not an option. Of the seven hundred balls of fur in the first batch of chicks, she had just over a dozen figured out. She watched over them, glared at them disapprovingly when they were too boisterous and talked to them unconsciously for hours on end. They were her living world.

As before, the complete self- absorption of life impressed itself upon her receptive mind deeply. The chicks had a one point program- their own happiness and comfort. That came first, no matter what. The maniacal self- absorption seemed so inevitable, so right..!

Their fights with each other were most amusing. One chick looking like a blob of sunshine, would be standing on a brick warmed by a stray ray of the sun. Its tiny beak would be tucked under its feathers, neck drawn in, making it look squat. Once it was all warmed up, it would doze off. Another chick would come by, cock its head on one side and study the snoozing one meditatively. For no rhyme or reason, the studious one would give a shove to the snoozer. The snoozer would fall off his perch and glare around. The pusher would stand and stare defiantly back. Sometimes, if the snoozer was easy going… it would walk away and look for another sunny spot. Otherwise there would be an altercation. The victor would get the coveted snooze spot, unless someone had already grabbed it by then. In that case the whole thing would begin over again.

She would sit there, holding her aching sides, giddy with laughter.

She still loves watching unselfconscious life. She still loves to study people and guess at the structure of their inner world. She still finds their antics droll, their little peeves endearing. She is filled with an affectionate indulgence when she watches them going to elaborate trouble to keep their transparent cunning camouflaged. Her Life Watch has retained its allure. It still fills her inner world with laughter and joy. She has as much fun as she had sitting in the pen watching day old chicks trying to be clever.

The window sill may have given way to the rickety stool inside the bird pen. The low stool may have morphed into the glass screen of her laptop. There may have been a few decades added to her age. She has never lost her taste for Life Watching. She is as addicted to it as she was when she was four years old. This is a love that has endured.

She powered up her laptop and logged into Facebook.

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