When I am not bird-watching, I like to watch people. Strangers, in particular. I am captivated by their nonverbal behavior. Gestures such as shoulder shrugs, head nods, and hand movements are significant parts of human interactions. They are our inner whistle-blowers that leak out top-secret information about our personalities. Tell the world who we really are, as opposed to the type of person that we aspire to be.
No matter how restless or torn we may be, our actions are always fluid. They seem like a natural extension of our characters; as though they begin where our script ends. They start when words fail us. Or when we fail them.
Listening to people, though, is not nearly as faascinating. All many do is share the messy details of their lives. And it is the same badly-edited story ad nauseam. Everyone is a victim and a survivor. They faced social alienation. Dealt with parental pressure and economic hardships. Overcame drug abuse, smoking, alcoholism, junk food and bad relationships. Moved past broken promises. Suffered. Survived. Rinse and repeat.
While I feel bad for someone who has the need to trumpet their woes, I am not very empathetic about it. Halfway through the conversation, I am probably thinking about one of my own problems. Even if mine is not in the league of theirs, it still means the world to me. Because I internalize other people’s issues.
It is my superpower. Except I will not save anyone. And I can never fly. Outrun a bullet. Or jump from one building to another without plummeting comically to my death. Okay, maybe it is more of a self-defense mechanism than a superpower. Marvel Studios would never turn my life into a film because it would be devastatingly boring. And Dev Patel will always be too fair, young and thin to bear any likeness to me.
No matter what I think of it, I am glad that people reach out to one another when they are down and blue. I get it. Because it is a healthy process of unburdening the pain. The loathing, and the longing. They need to be sure that the universe is not a cold and lonely place; that there is someone who is willing to listen to them and absorb – without suffering – their sorrows.
It is a delicate social ecosystem. One that cannot be tinkered with. Otherwise, there will be anarchy on the streets. If we were not allowed to spill our guts, we will be thwacking strangers on their skulls, with steel pipes, every chance we get. Throwing heavy objects at the ones we love – five seconds into a conversation about where to brunch.
It will be absolute chaos. It is why we should learn to listen to people when they are feeling sad or anxious. Because anarchy is a lot of work. And brunches are stupid.
Some of the most memorable moments are when I spot it first. My heart skips a beat when I find a bird still asleep. It is special.
Maybe I should stare at people after they go to bed.
Okay, maybe not.
Look at me,
Be my stranger,
it starts to rain.
(Photographs: Tamil Nadu, Kerala)