On the habit of observation and observation of habits


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Even three years ago I did not know which vegetable grew in which season (the fact that these days everything is available at all times via cold storage did nothing to help me either) or which flower bloomed of its own accord in which part of the year. I have always reveled in the beauty of the cotton rose growing in the neighbor’s garden, but could never recollect correctly when it bloomed. Similarly, I enjoyed my mother’s special lady’s finger preparation, but after six months could not exactly pinpoint the time when father brought the green finger-like things by the kilos from the market.

Only a very few, like the green peas or the marigold, were powerful enough to imprint the time of their existence in my mind.

When I went to college and started to live with people from different parts of the state, I realized the inefficacy that stared in my eyes like a terrifying chasm. My room-mates would often complain about the severe liquidity of the dal at dinner, the morbid tastelessness of the egg curry, and would easily identify when the salt was missing. The only thing that my mind seemed to register, however, was the scathing acridity of the chicken soup. That, I guess, was because my tongue had never been too friendly with the chilies.

However, this was only the start of the long list of things which I failed to see. When I saw a beautiful girl, the only word I knew to describe her was that – beautiful. On the other hand, my room-mate dissected with remarkable clarity the shape of the girl’s lips, nose and eyes, the color of her skin, her posture and her gait.

I would go by buildings and constructions failing to recount afterwards a single peculiarity in them.

What, in the name of the good Lord, was wrong with me? Why was I, who had been a relatively good student throughout school, failing to describe things which everyone else seemed to describe without an effort? What was this mysterious element which seemed to slip out of my grasp every time I attempted to hold it?

Solution began in the form of writing. When I started to write about someone, I needed to do better than what I were managing at that point of time. I needed to talk about the peculiarities of her behavior, the subtleties of her everyday manners. I needed to describe what colors she liked and which colors looked good on her. I needed to note how her eyes shone and her lips curved when her boyfriend called. I needed to describe the foods she ate. When I needed her to walk to her school, I needed to show which flowers were in bloom, what the color of sky was and how it was reflected in the building with glass panels, a difference, I might add, to the usual brick and wood stuff of the other buildings.

I realized then what was wrong. I was not observing.

I realized I used to come back from college, lost in my own thoughts all the time, never really bothering to look at the people around. Of all the eighteen years that I had lived with my parents, I never observed the patterns that bounded my family. I ate, but never bothered to check whether mom’s egg curry needed more salt. I was not consciously observing when my father brought which veggies. I was only doing things mechanically, never taking note of the little habits, the little patterns that were forming every day.

I did not see the difference until it shrieked itself to me, like an ugly black blot on a piece of white cloth. Or until someone pointed it to me.

Since that realization I have come a long way. As I have matured as an author, my writings have become more visual. When I started my first novel I probed the depths of my mind to find out the colors, the smells and the faces from my childhood. Once I was consciously concentrating I found that these images were locked in a safe cabinet in my mind. All it needed was a little prod. I have, since, queried my mother about certain facts from childhood that I recollected, and discovered to my utter delight that she had forgotten about them. That felt liberating, to say the least.

As an author, I realize now, it is very important to have an eye for observation. And observation of patterns and habits is perhaps the most important lesson in this class. Else, how would your protagonist describe the concentration with which her father read the newspaper every morning year after year, or how her mother reacted when she brought her first trophy from school?

Starting in May, Scribbles@Arpita will feature a new category, Saturday Specials. For May, in this category I will host guest posts by fellow bloggers and authors. So, don’t forget to check your Reader feed for a new post on Scribbles@Arpita this Saturday!

4 thoughts on “On the habit of observation and observation of habits

      1. Chole Eso Bandhu Hote

        “Habits are conditioned patterns of behavior earned through practices. We can think of them as our default responses to life’s complexities. We learned them well, presumably, because they worked for us earlier in life. And, given who we are now and our current life circumstances, we are learning to observe the habit as it arises, in all it’s nuances and subtleties. With this self-awareness (really, an expanded sense of our own truth in a given moment) we find ourselves with a choice about whether to act out the conditioned habit, or, choose a new response that may be more useful. “…. Thank you Arpita for your inimitable depiction of the essence of making observations our habit…


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