Tales overheard

Eavesdropping rarely produces gems which can be woven into fiction.

One rule of good manners instilled in us by caring elders is the severe ‘no-no’ on eavesdropping and gossiping about what we were not supposed to hear in the first place.  Similarly the well-brought up kid is forbidden to read any letters for others that may be lying about, and to turn a deaf ear to their telephone calls, except to tell them later who had rung them up.

But we satisfy the conscience by arguing that it is not our fault if others talk loudly or scatter their private papers on any stool, table or shelf, inviting that innate curiosity which deserves praise rather than prohibition. We eavesdrop only by chance, not intention, in an inadvertent enlargement of social discourse that deserves more latitude than old taboos of good behaviour prescribe.   

Once, during home leave in a southern town, my wife and I were in a bus talking about an officer we had to contact on our return to Delhi. She disclosed that the wife of that worthy wanted a divorce from him for unknown grievances. We got up as the bus neared our stop, when the passenger just behind us tapped me on the shoulder. He was an elderly man who spoke to me in English: “Excuse me, Sir, you were talking about someone I know, so I wanted to listen to your interesting conversation and took this seat behind you.” That was my first experience of candid eavesdropping.  

It is unfortunate that eavesdropping, consensual or otherwise, rarely produces gems which can be woven into saleable fiction or reportage. My wife and I go to a nearby park in the afternoon and keep our ears open for scraps we can share with an aspiring author.  Many are the gems of inadvertent eavesdropping, if only we had the wit to record them when they are still tickling us an hour or two later.  In these days of i-phones and i-pads, our park walk offers little snippets we cannot evade by anything short of deafness or ear plugs.   

A man was phoning his caller defensively: “My dear fellow, as I told you, I am sorry I can’t meet you this afternoon, because I am now in Bangalore on urgent business.” I walk on, wondering if his rampant local lie from Mysore would be exposed, perhaps when both friends went to their accustomed café for a drink and snack.

Another time we overheard two ladies chatting.  “How are things, Kanta? I bought this new cellphone and wanted to call up my best friends.” The other lady solicitously replied, “Sorry to hear you are having trouble with your niece. Which one, the girl who was carrying on with the drummer of the pop group?”  There was an agitated exchange.  Then, the lady on the bench we were passing said:  “Oh, you meant your trouble was with your knees, not niece?  Happens to a lot of us, dear Sona. Go consult Dr Avid Pidungi.” 

This is another bit of live conversation between two young women within earshot. “My husband’s parents expect me to sit at table with them and serve them”. The other lady replied: “In my house, it is worse.  When we dine together, they expect me to stand and serve them: they even knock on the table for second helpings. I simply disappear.”
At times, I am reminded of John Keats’s haunting phrase in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter”.  I adapt it to say, “Heard gossip is spicy, but tales overheard are spicier”.

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