Eyes are the mirrors of the soul”, I’m sure you’ve heard that as many times as I have.

A person’s thoughts can be ascertained by looking in his or her eyes”. The proverb has been traced back in English to ‘Regiment of Life’ (1545). But the proverb was known much earlier. Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is quoted as saying, ‘Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi’ (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter).

But how long do we need to look into someone’s eyes before we can see the picture of their mind? What stories can be drawn out of someone’s eyes when the only way to communicate is through sight and touch?

He was sitting on the side of the road splitting wood with a kitchen knife for the fire that was to warm the meager evening meal, with him the resemblance of a family in tow—son, daughter, sister—who knows?

The fire, the tarpaulin, the crashing of the waves and an Asian sun set behind the rail road tracks. Almost an idyllic picture if not for the incessant traffic bellowing out fumes and noise pollution centimetres away from the make-shift home of cardboard, plastic and other recycled odds and ends.

A home that must move every time law enforcers decide that its presence is undesirable, especially in and among the well-heeled, joggers and socially mobile multitude of go-getters who dance to the most bizarre ring-tones. But nothing strange about that; that is but one face of the divide between poverty and affluence. The face of the lot that slips through all kinds of safety nets, the face of a collective mind that has been usurped of liberty, and crash lands in our midst almost unnoticed, or rendered invisible by our own apprehensions.

How easy it would be, right now to dwell on the big picture of poverty. Don’t I know about the global discourse of ‘structural poverty’, the strategies to alleviate it, and all the jargon that comes with it? But from time to time it is the sobering experience of looking straight in the eyes of the poor, instead  of the concept of poverty, that blindingly reflects like a spotless mirror to shed uncomfortable truths.

We looked into each others eyes for a few moments. Reflected in his cheerful face I  saw … me, all of that I don’t understand, my powerlessness, my ignorance, and the privileges that ignorance entails.

In the dimming early evening light, I wondered what he saw.

Foto: On the seaside, Colombo