Forgive my swivelling eyes: this past week, on an interminable flight from nowhere to no-place, I watched a man scroll through the photos on his phone. Which is to say, I looked at his photos without his knowledge.

They weren’t lewd, or inappropriate. They were of him, a woman I assumed is his partner, and a young child. I looked on in fascination as photos morphed into each other, as in a movie. Apologies in advance, for this may seem... no, it is creepy — but I watched his child’s arrival, his movement from place to place, his first steps with his parents holding his arms. The man gazed at the passage of his child’s life with the avidity of recent fatherhood.

I watched because he was sitting in my line of sight.

Because I couldn’t look away.


I didn’t watch him the whole time. I would look away, read, doze, try my best to not pry into another man’s life. It would be easy to blame it on the enforced proximity of being together in a flying cylinder at 30,000ft. If a man chooses to look at his phone while reclining, thereby putting it practically between my screen and my eyes, is it even my fault?

Then why, at the first hint of a swimsuit, did I guiltily look away?


Privacy is pointless, some of us laugh these days. I live in a country where surveillance is taken for granted. Even in my online life, my settings are set to public, even though I mostly use social media only for posting about my family. My house is of glass. Why guard the façade, when I have nothing to hide?

Yet my other country is convulsed in a conversation about privacy and its boundaries that cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a free citizen of India, if we think of it as the state that its founders had fondly imagined it would one day be.


Clearly there is no equivalence between the Aadhaar debate and my looking at the next guy’s phone. Still, it behoves each one of us to respect privacy’s boundaries actively; to render unto each other as we would have done to us. To look away, then, when photos of children that aren’t our own flash on a screen close by.

I debated engaging the man in a conversation. I wanted to let him know that I too have spent desultory hours, between places I’d forgotten the names of, looking at photos of my son on my phone. Before that, I actually carried prints. Not just with me: I had photos on my desk, in my laptop case and next to my bed, in frames everywhere I actually spent any time. In public view.

But I didn’t engage him. Because I know that there is a difference between a photo in a frame you’re showing a friend you’ve invited into your home, and one that flashes by on a stranger’s screen in the next seat.


Is it a question not of privacy, then, but of proximity? Is it simply that there are more people now, and we’re all sitting on each other’s heads? There are certainly more people travelling than ever before. My father is full of stories of meeting friends on planes and trains and the cosy chats they’d have. Outside of a few well-defined parameters — the great summer holiday getaway, for example — that hardly ever happens to me. From cab to gate to plane to line to cab: I only see strangers, all sunk in their own screen-lit solitudes.

The screen becomes, then, an aid to privacy. An essential cog in the cone of silence we erect around ourselves so we can be truly alone in the crowded currents that ferry us from nowhere to no-place. Don’t talk to me, says the device — my salmon’s looking at photos of his own family. So what if his settings are set to public and he lives in a world where surveillance just is? At this moment, in this place, next to you, he wants to be alone.

I could have reached across. I sensed a kindred spirit. Others have broken the ice with me based on a glimpse of what I hold most dear in this world.

But the connection I sensed was hostage to the possibility of offence, of a phone quickly, quietly put away behind the veneer of a smile, an intrusion whose prickly outcome you can ill-afford when in transit with the unnamed.

Mainly I just concentrated on not looking as his son grew up next to me.


I bought a second-hand book recently in Beijing. I’d read it before, but seeing it there in the cardboard box brought back memories and so I grabbed it, to see if I’d have the same relationship with it I’d had a decade earlier.

Back at home, a photograph fell out of it. It is of a young woman with a cup of coffee in her hands, artlessly trusting, as if the photo is being taken by someone she knows well. I feel I know her, but of course I don’t. I don’t even know where it was taken.

It contains worlds. It speaks to me.



Avtar Singh



Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing