Heads up

I recently visited India. Most of our time was spent in Goa, must of it on the beaches. Some were empty, others crowded. It was interesting to watch how differently people walked. Nationality seemed to have more of a bearing than age. There were a lot of hawkers, selling everything from fruit, to lengths of cloth, to jewelry. The fruit sellers carried large containers that must have weighed ten or more kilos on their heads. Many of the cloth sellers had their wares bundled up on their heads too. I even saw a couple of jewellery merchants whose small pouches were perched on their heads. Away from the beaches, I saw workers carrying locally constructed breezeblocks, lengths of wood, etc, on their heads. Nine tenths of the head carriers were women. No matter what the weight – and in the case of the fruit sellers, potential buyers often helped them get their load back on their heads after they had sold, or failed to sell, something to them, as it was too heavy for the sellers to do this themselves – these loads were carried with apparent grace and ease. Having a weight on the head that is liable to fall off if the head is moved in certain ways seemed to bring about an enforced poise that had no connotations of stiffness or stuckness. I noticed how active the eyes of the carriers were. On the beaches, a hawker could spot a likely customer and make a beeline for them from huge distances away. Their heads would follow their eyes. The hawkers were mostly women. When they walked without their loads, they looked very similar. Upright, with little head movement. The men were not so elegant. They tended to carry things on their shoulders, if they carried anything at all. But their heads were held relatively easily. There were many Westerners around, walking the sea’s edge like troopers. Almost to a man, and woman, their heads were bowed, if not all the time, more often than not. There was no way they could have walked like this and carried anything at all, apart from a firmly wedged hat, on their heads without it dropping off. I felt I knew this head drooping position well. My father adopted it in later life, and I’ve noticed myself doing the same. It seems to me to coincide with a particular form of thinking. Pondering, I would call it. It’s when the mind is grappling with an idea, turning it this way and that, trying to clarify a muddle. That’s when I look down at the ground, not focusing on it, but in a sort of visual daze. Most of the Westerners walking by with their heads down were presumably lost in thought. I did a little experimenting and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t possible to be lost in thought while looking out at the world in the way you pretty much had to do when carrying a weight on the head that prevented the head from sagging downwards; and that, in fact, in order to become fully and deeply immersed in thought, a collapse of the head on the spine was something of a necessity. My wife and I played around with this as we walked about the place. We ‘pretended’ we were carrying weights on our heads. We did this for maybe thirty seconds at a time before we forgot about it until we remembered again and it was positively scary to watch the difference (I watched the difference in my wife, and ‘felt’ it in myself) as we went from shambling along in our usual fashion, with head wobbling or lolling or dropping, to walking with head carrying an imaginary weight. Why do we – Westerners – spend so much time ‘lost in thought’? I’m convinced it – distraction – is the prime cause of poor use, and that we overindulge grotesquely. I realize that without the ability to think abstractly we wouldn’t have much of a Western way of life. Maybe spending so much time ‘in our heads’ is the reason for wanting to ‘get out of’ them so much.

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