After an eleven-hour flight from Chennai to London on an economy seat with a man snoring like a Neanderthal seated next to you, the virtue of patience tends to lose its appeal. The last thing I wanted to do was stand in an overcrowded immigration queue for an hour lugging hand luggage that weighs a ton. That said, I must admit it was one of the most amusing sixty minutes I’ve spent in an airport. A group of middle aged Indians travelling on a tour package formed an unruly little circular blob in what was otherwise an orderly queue to the immigration post. The immigration officer, appalled by this uncouth behaviour, came down and requested them to fall in line; which they did for about five minutes, before returning to the relatively circular, loud cluster. A second officer who tried reasoning with the elderly ladies came to the realisation that even the fear of being rebuked by authority wasn’t going to win a battle against years of tradition: a tradition that celebrates a strange conception of personal space.
“It is part of our historical tradition that influences how we view space and privacy”
The roots of such a tradition can be best understood by spending a day in a typical Indian household: a large group with representatives of three generations living under the same roof. It has long been the norm in Asian cultures that the woman marries into a family. Newly-weds stay with the husband’s family and live with his parents, brothers and their children. In such environments, personal space is a liberty that is seldom enjoyed. Everyone is in everyone else’s way and nobody is ever alone. As an Indian, I lived in such a household when I was growing up, and now that I live alone, I miss the sense of chaos and disarray that constantly consumed our lives and unintentionally gave each individual a sense of purpose and responsibility. We shouldn’t be quick to assume that this phenomenon is purely a result of financial difficulty. Joint families can be seen in households at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum. It is part of our historical tradition that influences how we view space and privacy.
“It’s very similar to ants sprawling over a piece of candy”
This idea of personal space or absence thereof has a spillover effect in the public sphere. If you have ever had the privilege of taking a public bus in India, you would realise that, given the loads they carry, they defy every scientific principle. People cram into, onto and hang off the sides of buses, until there is no part of the body of the bus that can be seen other than the front windscreen. To put it in perspective, it’s very similar to ants sprawling over a piece of candy. What’s interesting is that this isn’t just because of inefficient public transport. Even if there are empty seats in front and behind where you are sitting, a traveller usually occupies the seat next to you, and starts a conversation. You grow so accustomed to close proximity that its absence can seem strange.
A few years ago, a friend of mine from Toronto took up an internship at the Hindu, a daily that is circulated largely in South India. While pitching ideas to the editor, he thought it might be interesting to reflect on the intimacy between Indian men, particularly the tradition of holding hands in public. Having been accustomed to the idea that men holding hands outside a funeral setting meant they were homosexuals, the Canadian presumed that India had a tradition of open-mindedness and tolerance to homosexuality that was unexpected in an Asian country. For the Indian man, however, the act of holding hands or putting an arm round another’s shoulder is not ‘intimacy’ in the traditional western sense. It is a consequence of ‘brotherly love’ that is enshrined even in the Indian national pledge.
The next time you happen to see an Indian taking a seat next to you on a train, which it is relatively empty, or when you find someone standing very close to you in a supermarket queue, take a moment to reflect on how even these mundane and annoying experiences are filled with clues of what living in India is like. Often these hidden clues can give you invaluable tools to understand what life is like on the Indian subcontinent.