City Sightings

I dislike big cities. They make me feel powerless. The commute to a big city in a train is just as unappealing and hollow as big cities themselves are. As a kid, I was charmed by the sight of trains. But no longer. A typical commuter in a city bound train screams out his detachment from other commuters. He doesn’t speak much. His neck is constantly angled down with unblinking eyes fixated on the screen of his handheld device; his ears are shut from the worldly sounds with headphones; his thumb and forefinger are in a constant foreplay with pleasures of digital decadence. He abhors being rubbed or touched or stepped on accidentally. He speaks only when spoken to. People offer perfunctory whispers of greetings to one another. Everyone is preparing for their first few morning hours at work.

As soon as I come out of the railway station, I feel I am being watched and judged. The air smells of impatience. The tall sentries of any big city – the ugly skyscrapers – have an air of forced superiority about them. They stare down at me, every single morning. No matter how beautiful the day is, they mask the warmth of the Sun from reaching me. The numerous black tinted windows on them whisper to me dark stories of what happens inside them. Often, they tell me of the dog-eat-dog competition and scheming plans happening inside.

A typical morning scene in my walk to work – and no two mornings are any different from one another –  in a big city appals me. Men and women are seen dressed in fine business attire but they wear no smile on their face. Busy junctions suddenly burst with a swarm of walk-fast-look-worried commuters. At a corner, a lady smokes pensively as she stands with her back arched against a building wall and stares down with disdain at the stained pavement. She lets out a bronchial cough sometimes that is heard on top of the cars going past me. A little later, at the traffic lights, a stout lady trots with great difficulty while holding a takeaway coffee cup in one hand, and she tries hard not to spill the coffee as she makes it to the other end before the lights turn green. Oodles of busy coffee shops line city streets, and several of them display an ugly motif of loyalty cards stuck to their walls or roofs with shapeless, lumps of blue-tack.

And then I am standing at the traffic lights one block away from my work building. Like any other skyscraper around it, this one too is a tall, dark, and unattractive building. It has a glass façade as most of them do. If anything, it appears to be a neatly stacked display of matchboxes. Any two windows the same. Any two levels the same. As I wait for the pedestrian lights to turn green, I try to spot my floor. But I can’t as all levels look the same. So, I count the levels from bottom up. One, two, three, four, five, six–, I fixate my eyes on counting the levels, and even before I can count to the floor I work on, I feel people stirring past me. The pedestrian lights are already green. I cross the road and enter my building through the revolving doors.

The same concierge lady I spotted yesterday – and day before last, and last week –  is in sight, sitting on a high chair facing the people entering through the door. Same uniform. Same expressions. I feel I am reliving yesterday. She gives me a perfunctory smile, the same smile that I got yesterday. I return the smile but I say, ‘Morning, another day in paradise!’ or a mere, ‘Hello’, or sometimes just a nod discreetly expressing, ‘So glad to see you still smiling. How do you do this every day?’

And then the elevator. The door, like most city slickers, are impatient and often try to slam hurriedly. An ugly two-minute silence in the journey to my floor follows. Sometimes that claustrophobic silence inside the elevator is interrupted by someone’s heavy breathing, and sometimes by the slurping from sucking at the end of straw in a cola can. I swivel my eyes and guess who the sounds are from. Often my hungry stomach growls, but its never too loud to be heard.

In the afternoon, I step out for lunch. I like my lunch hour outside. It’s my ‘holy hour’, and I avoid eating in the office pantry. After escaping a couple of over-enthusiastic chuggers who annoyingly and unfailing accost me to donate to a charity, I walk into my favourite restaurant, and it plays a soothing ambient song that strikes a chord with me. Suddenly, I forget the city sounds – the impatient honking of cars and the dinging of trams, the rhythmic sounds of car tyres as one car after another press upon tram tracks and loose-fitting manhole covers.

After lunch, a solitary walk around a block or two before I say hello to the concierge lady who receives me with the same smile. Only fewer people in the elevator this time.

Evening. An air of happiness fills the evening air that follows all the way to home. Work is done. Go home. Buskers on the city streets distract commuters’ attentions to more interesting things – the sound of violin or guitar, or someone singing, or playing a harp, or a pan-flute. Some people standby and record with their phones, while some slide their phones into their pockets and watch with naked eyes. At the station, even the train has a happier look and enters the station merrily, knowing that its time to go home, and away from the city.