Watch, before you smile
If you want to float past security checks, there must be no eye contact, greeting or nodding. But most importantly, there must be no smiling
Over the past month, while frequenting a suburban Mumbai hospital to visit a relative, I have mastered the art of weaving in and out beyond the limited visiting hours. I’ve developed a few stock methods over the month: wear any unrelated lanyard (one from the Mumbai Film Festival worked for me); carry a serious-looking file and look repeatedly at your wrist watch; walk fast while pretending to be irritated by something being said on the phone. Given the high demand for this skill among tense relatives in the waiting room, I have taken to sharing my wisdom freely. Yesterday, I advised a stranger to carry an empty file and say they’re going to the pathology lab in the basement and then sneakily take the elevator up to the ward.
These pointers have had many takers; they are useful to the novice. But for me, there came a day I realized I needed no tricks. I could just float past security checks as long as I made no eye contact with the hospital’s many watchmen on duty. There must be no greeting. No nodding. There must be no gesture that establishes a warm human connection. Most importantly, there must be no smiling. A smile guarantees that you will be asked to produce your visiting hours ID card.
I’ve had this suspicion for a while now at hotel entrances and even my own office building, which calls for baggage scanning. When I alight from my car, I walk right in. When I arrive in an Uber, there is a 50% chance that the guard might want to scan my bag. The few times I have come by foot, my bag and body have gone through so many checks, one would think danger never arrived on wheels.
These are disturbing realizations, and it forces one to peel away the many layers of class privilege one has become accustomed to in this country to understand what is at work. A self-assured or snotty stance signals your own sense of impunity to the man in charge of gate-keeping. Otherwise sure of what he’s doing, the aloofness makes him believe you know better. A state of complete expressionless-ness works wonders in a country high on emotion and expression; it confuses people. Anger can go either way. A needy, plaintive expression puts you on the back foot. And with a smile, of course, you surrender all power.
My earliest lesson in understanding that a smile is perceived by security personnel as a sign of weakness, or perhaps guilt, was with a ticket collector in a Mumbai local train. It was a college route I took every weekday for two years. I used to cross an affable middle-aged ticket collector a few times a month. One day, perhaps to momentarily wash organic chemistry off my mind, I flashed a warm, glorious smile. It was meant to say, “It was nice having you along on this journey. I’m about to graduate soon. Farewell." He promptly asked me for my railway pass. I was shocked and confused and well, hurt. Needless to say, I have never smiled at a ticket collector again. And clearly, I better watch out with the watchmen too.
She tweets at @aninditaghose