Have you ever stood on a busy street corner simply to watch the world go by? Can you recall a time when you consciously indulged in whiling time away, something that a lot of Indians refer to these days, as “time pass”? I recently did just that.
A friend from Ottawa and I had planned to meet at Dundas Square, downtown Toronto for lunch. It was a beautiful, sunny day with the temperature in the high teens, after the preceding few days of unseasonal icy rains and cold weather. So, I took an earlier train to enjoy a leisurely walk around the city. Taking a circuitous route from Union Station to David Pecaut Square, I then headed north past Osgoode Hall and over to Dundas Square, picking out sun drenched sidewalks to help me counter the nip in the air.
I got to Dundas Square well before the appointed time and strolled back and forth for a while, observing the passing crowds. Young girls were preening before their friends as everyone took selfies, some older folks were enjoying an outing with their kids or grandchildren and tourists from many different parts of the world were busy taking pictures of the buildings and street performers. A couple stood beside their stand displaying Bibles to give away, while across from them stood two young men trying to engage passersby in a conversation on Islam. Office goers, having bought their hot dogs, salad or a sandwich were either rushing to get back to work or seeking a spot where they could sit and enjoy their meal. Construction crews had dug up a part of the Square, reducing the seating area. The ebb and flow of people, the buzz of conversations in multiple tongues all round and the flashing billboards created a palpable energy unique to this famous Square.
While “waiting for Godot,” I recalled my student days in Delhi from the early 1970s when I would often get away from the campus for what I called my “sole/soul” time. I would travel from Kashmiri Gate to Connaught Place, the pièce de résistance created by the British in the 1930s as a Central Plaza built in the European Classical style to house commercial establishments with residences on the floor above. Prominent establishments included Galgotia and Oxford book stores; restaurants like Volga’s, Wenger’s, United Coffee House and Kwality; Regal, Plaza, Odeon and Rivoli cinemas and several clothing stores and other landmarks. Connaught Place is laid out in two concentric circles, creating an Inner Circle, Middle Circle and the Outer Circle with seven roads radiating from a circular central park. It was this Central Park that was my haunt on some evenings and weekends before the first discotheque – The Cellar opened up and became my frequent nightly adda (meeting place). The park was a large green oasis right in the centre of the most popular part of Delhi, until some supposedly bright minds decided to develop an underground market – Palika Bazar in the late 1970s, followed by a Metro Station – concrete eyesores.
I would pick a spot at random on the black iron railing that ran around the park to secure it from the traffic circulating around. I would sit there, mindlessly observing the people in the park. There sat a family, reclining on a printed bedspread with food and drink spread around them and young kids running about or twirling “hula hoops” around the waist while grandparents dozed or played cards. Here sat a young couple seeking refuge coyly behind thick shrubs, trying to steal a kiss or a feverish all-too-short embrace, with the girl nervously looking to see if anyone was watching; eager policemen would always be on the lookout for such people for extorting money to leave them alone. A middle-aged man dozed against a tree trunk, with his chappals (open-toe sandals) tucked under him for fear of a dog, or an enterprising street urchin making off with them. Did he not wish to return home to more troubles that might await him there? A young woman rushing to get home after work to husband, kids and most likely, also her in-laws waiting to be served their fresh evening meal.
Sellers moved about, hawking their assorted merchandise. Toy sellers offered spinning tops, plastic monkey masks, spectacle frames without glasses sitting on a bulbous plastic nose with a false moustache attached to its underside, bamboo flutes, balloons tied to sticks and stuffed toys. Food sellers would provide chana jor garam (roasted chickpeas flavored with hot spices), kulfi (creamy, non-churned Indian ice cream), banta or goli soda water (colloquial term for the popular carbonated lemon or orange-flavored soft drink in Codd-neck bottles, before Coca Cola gained popularity), golgappas (small, fried spheres of semolina filled with pungent water spiced with condiments), chikki (sweet brittle made of peanuts and jaggery), choorangolis (sweet and sour digestive powders in the shape of little balls) and aam papad (paper thin layers of sun-dried mango pulp, served with rock-salt sprinkled on top) etc., etc. Each had his own special sing-song voice and a mannerism that never failed to get the attention, especially of young children, who would pester their indulgent parents to buy them a bauble or food items for the clan.
However, the most fascinating aspect of the tableau, whether in Delhi decades ago, or in Toronto last week, is always the centerpiece – the human. The drama of all stages of life with an ever-changing cast of interesting characters is constantly unfolding before our eyes. It is fascinating to not just look but to consciously see, become aware of and enjoy our ambient environment. One may then notice and start to empathize with the many young people sprawled around our street corners, seemingly engaged in a heart and life-wrenching “time pass” while clinging on to the hope that all may not yet be lost for them.
“Mere dil ko dur se takne, jaane kitnī yādeñ aa.iiñ”
(To gaze at my heart/soul from afar, wonder how many memories have gathered) – Jan Nissar Akhtar