By Soumya Anand Nov. 04, 2022
Most of us are terrified of becoming one with the crowd, but what that invisibility has allowed me, in terms of agency and freedom, has turned out to be invaluable.
There are these shots that movies open with – a sea of people walking in a hurry, dissolving, except the protagonist, who stands out. I always wanted to be that protagonist. I wanted this ability to disappear in a crowd and the unique power to stand out still. I wanted the privacy that comes with abundance but a lens to singularly focus on me. A move from a small town in Northern India to a metropolis like Mumbai was then, not a rite of passage, but an intentional transition towards obscurity. To live surrounded by the rich and the famous means that your own self is minimised, sometimes reflecting their light, other times coalescing into a mass of humanity, losing its own shape. It might sound strange but I always looked forward to this change.
What I hadn’t imagined was how empty a city full of people could be, how concrete the absence of known souls could feel. I, who wanted to revel in anonymity, quickly started to yearn for familiarity.
It wasn’t as straightforward as I expected at first. What I hadn’t imagined was how empty a city full of people could be, how concrete the absence of known souls could feel. I, who wanted to revel in anonymity, quickly started to yearn for familiarity. Were these early jitters, teething issues or lasting side effects of choosing the unknown? Through open windows from their apartments across the street, I felt, people here wanted desperately to be seen, but not to be known. How then could I deal with my isolation without losing my solitude? How could I let people in without giving up my space?
To an extent the city helped. Over the numerous steps I took across the city, never did a man bump into me, or brush his hand against me; even when I walked through crowded pathways. They invariably twisted, turned, slowed down, moved their arms away, making way for me and ensuring I wasn’t uncomfortable- a kinship emanated from their gesture of respect and maybe also their desire to let me be. Walking thus became my expression of freedom, and my escape from isolation. On the street, I could observe, without being observed. I could loiter, without being judged.
There was little pressure to be likeable, barely any fear of consequences, and none of the ‘log kya kahenge’ business, because people would generally mind their own business.
I formalised this process by joining heritage walks and tried to find people who mirrored my needs and interests. People who desired familiarity, but not necessarily with other people but with history and culture. Through the help of these people, I developed new eyes to see cities, found stories in nooks I’d otherwise pass over, developed an understanding of a history shared by all citizens who don’t necessarily recognise or even acknowledge each other’s existence. Except maybe as that collected crowd that, most people see from the perspective of the protagonist.
It wasn’t that every time I stepped out I was looking for strangers. I never even expected to see them again, projecting consequently a version of myself I would perhaps hide from acquaintances, people I otherwise knew. With the former I could experiment, emphasise one aspect of my personality while reinventing another. Or I could be my truest self, unafraid of sharing thoughts and opinions I would hesitate in uttering around people I knew. There was little pressure to be likeable, barely any fear of consequences, and none of the ‘log kya kahenge’ business, because people would generally mind their own business. To someone who would bump into at least four acquaintances on their way to the grocery store back home, this kind of benign anonymity was welcome. It’s ironic then how cities lack physical space, but provide so much in terms of spirit and soul to wander inside. Nobody minds the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign here.
The city and its dwellers embrace her and give her company, and I feel my city is my companion too, a presence as strong as any person I’ve known.
In her book Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick writes, ‘Every night when I turn the lights out in my sixteenth-floor living room before I go to bed, I experience a shock of pleasure as I see the banks of lighted windows rising to the sky, crowding round me, and feel myself embraced by the anonymous ingathering of city dwellers.’ The city and its dwellers embrace her and give her company, and I feel my city is my companion too, a presence as strong as any person I’ve known. Their gestures helped erase a wall around me and enhanced a feeling of community, striking at the root cause of loneliness. This community however was different from the community of blood or a graduation class as it asked fewer questions but answered more of them. Even the exit clauses are simpler.
I migrated to become free by becoming invisible. My invisibility cloak was my superpower but I realised that the cloak needed holes, to breathe, to let light and help pass through. My experiences with strangers made me realise that interacting with others could be freeing too. But from a respectable distance, the kind that any of us could walk away from without the other one knowing, or maybe even, caring. Because it’s the greatest service of friendship, to let someone just be.