A man with gnarled hands appears at my train window.
Instinctively I jab a mental button that raises a screen between us. It’s an art that’s been perfected by years of practice- the art of ‘defocusing’-blurring out troubling details you don’t want to engage with.
Perhaps it started when I was a little girl with mum pulling me past their outstretched hands and yearning faces – “don’t look at them or you will have to give them something”, she warned.
Over the years I’ve put this inbuilt ‘defocus setting’ to good use. I’ve used it to block out the lustful stares of men as I walked down the narrow streets that led to the local train station . The same for piles of stinking garbage that spills into the streets of even our biggest cities, for inebriated men sprawled on sidewalks, for women with unwashed hair and clothes, for children with runny noses playing with broken toys..the list is endless…and we all know the list. I’ve learned to walk down the streets of my country by relegating everything that I don’t want to see to a fuzzy, de-focused background.
As I wait for the train to start, I recollect the excerpt of a speech I’d heard only a few days before by Harsh Mandir on TED talk. (look him up on the internet if you don’t know who he is). He was saying that what concerned him more than the poverty and deprivation of our country was the lack of concern towards it.
As I reluctantly process the implication of my thoughts, my children stare with wide-eyed, open curiosity at the man with the gnarled hands. Their stares embarrass me. I am tempted to repeat mum’s advice – “don’t look at ‘them‘”. I realize I’m trying to wear -out the persistence of the beggar with my trance-like expression. Eventually he moves on…and I relax.
I know this must change. ‘Looking’ precedes ‘doing’. I guess that’s probably why we don’t look in the first place. Could it be a way of shielding our nervous selves from the heart-break and inconvenience of action?
I want to learn from my kids. I want to ‘defocus me’ and start seeing again.