What is people watching?
Well, Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines it as “the act of spending time looking at different kinds of people in a public place because you find this interesting”.
I stumbled upon this long-known, but undiscovered term through a friend’s mail about his indulging into the activity in his visit to a country in South-East Asia. I was acquainted with flânerie and drifting due to my interest in psychogeography, Baudelaire and the Arcades Project, but not with the new rage of the new age. I researched a little and reached to the link between flânerie and people watching. An article I particularly liked was about people watching in Paris.
Not only was I excited as I read more about it, I could actually see how visitors to my city have been people watching since they started visiting it. From Ralph Fitch, Tavernier and Bernier to Pierre Loti and Hermann Keyserling, visitors to the city wrote paragraph after wonderful paragraph of description that amounts to the central activity of people watching much before the term was used and acknowledged.
Here’s an example from a work of non-fiction from early twentieth century, from E. B. Havell’s Benares: The Sacred City:
It is amusing to see sometimes at Mogul Serai, the junction for the East Indian line, how the up-to-date Indian arriving from Calcutta, Bombay, or some other large Anglo-Indian city, will in an incredibly short time divest himself of his European environment and transform himself into the orthodox Hindu. You will see him first stepping out of the train, dressed in more or less correct European garb, and smoking a cigarette. He is accompanied by a servant, who deposits a steel trunk on the platform in front of him. Then, coram populo, but without the least suggestion of impropriety, he proceeds to take off coat, waistcoat, trousers, and boots, and taking out of the trunk a collection of spotless white drapery, speedily arrays himself in puggaree, dhotee, and the rest of the becoming costume of an Indian gentleman, while the cast-off garments are stowed away until his next return to European society.
Pierre Loti’s India is full of such examples. This one is from the beginning of his visit:
A young fakir, whose long hair falls upon his shoulders, stands by the abode of the dead in a rigid attitude, with his head turned towards the smoking heaps of wood and their gruesome burdens. Though covered with white dust he is still beautiful and muscular. His chest is decked with a garland of marigolds, such a garland as the people here cast upon the river’s breast. A little way above the funeral heaps some five or six persons crouch upon the frieze of an old palace, which fell into the river long ago. Their heads are wrapped in veils, and, like the fakir, they stare fixedly at their kinsman who is being burned.
Here’s another example of people watching, this time, from fiction, from Shivprasaad Singh’s Gali Age Mudti Hai (The Lane Turns Ahead):
[Varanasi] is a strange city. There’s not enough space to walk in the lanes, not enough even to pass if one person stops walking, yet, if a performer starts performing, people forget all work and problems and assemble to watch what he has to show…
Two mahuar players were competing against each other: moving in circles, challenging, taking stances with mouth full of air. They appeared to be from Rajasthan. They wore narrow cut, tight trousers and dirty vests. Both wore patterned headgear. One was young and the other older… They played the same tune from a very famous Hindi film, “Mann dole, mere tan dole…”.
The novel presents many paragraphs of equally rich description as the hero goes on his way and watches people.
In addition to modern English and Hindi prose, people watching is ever present, in one form or the other but not as the central concern of the piece, in Sanskrit writing on the city.