Girish Karnad once said that Indians have no concept of personal space. By that he meant that the social structure in India was and is such that the social is given more importance than the individual. Western society on the other hand is the exact opposite: the individual is elevated to an almost-god-like status. The reason I am talking about personal space is because it’s all what I think about when I use public transport.
Have you ever tried buses in Chennai? It’s not bad. Actually, it can sometimes be quite worse. But it could have been different. First of all, the structure of the bus does not exactly inspire confidence. The green coloured sometime rusted exterior seems almost dangerous to get in. There are newer buses but they are few and further in between. Some of them are so chockfull with people, they remind me of sardines in a green tin can. During peak hour it is not uncommon to see a bus titled to one side with the weight of the passengers who sometimes hang dangerously from the footboard. I don’t even go near such buses. But I know lots of people who do.
We have local trains but they are not as prevalent like in Mumbai. I remember the one and only time I went on a local train here in Chennai. I was returning from listening to a lecture by Susan Gubar. (Of Gilbert and Gubar fame. They wrote the only most influential Feminist literary theory tome of the 21st century called The Madwoman in the Attic 1979). Nothing happened to me on the train. The train ride was pleasant. But I got my pocket picked on a bus ride to Madras Christian College, which is on the outskirts of the city. So my whole trip was scarred by it. But I digress. Let me get back to the topic at hand.
Have you ever ever stood in a queue? Assuming there is one though. I find that people tend to lean into my space. This is very discomforting for me. I cringe like hell. To many people, (I am talking about people here in India) the idea personal space is alien. I don’t know why.
I know I probably am the only one who feels this way but I have seen many people violate my personal space and stand too close. And I feel real uncomfortable. There are certain people who are ALLOWED to stand close like family and friends but I have no clue why I should allow a co-worker (male or female) into that space. It took me a long time to get used to the fact that some people out there don’t mind any kind of intrusion into their private space. My first job was especially taxing in this sense. My current work place thankfully is okay.
Now, can you imagine travelling in public transport? In there, no one has any sense of personal space. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that India is a crowded country but seriously, does it have to be so crowded?
A small digression here. When I used to travel regularly to college, my favourite pastime was identifying what kind of traveller people were. There were the very common variety of lecherous men, lower class, lungis hitched up, a lewd leer in their eyes. Then there were the somewhat good Samaritans who actually moved to make space for me. The funniest were the college guys, so shy that they could be shut up with a hard glare. Amongst college kids were the bold ones who might smile and even sing a song for you. But all ‘admiration’ was at a distance, which I fine with me. The worst of course were the middle-aged men who thought that any college kid could be molested. However, nothing could beat a few people whom I started calling the Pushers.
Who are the Pushers? A Pusher could be identified by her distended belly. The belly was an advantage that could be fully used only in the bus. The belly kept people away and was used to push their way into the crowded bus. It functioned like an extra arm. The worst place to be in the bus is to be seated and a Pusher’s belly distended right in front of your face. It’s suffocating and takes immense patience. All Pushers are women. And because they are women for some god-forsaken reason they think it is okay to stick to my body. TIll date, I have no clue why.
Back to the topic. When I say personal space, I mean that little breathing space around you which is sacred. I once read that the WHO had prescribed a 6 inch all-around space as your personal space violating of which could be taken to be an offence. Many social movements have been geared to explain how we have a right to our bodies. I suppose it would be a natural next step in the same direction to have people explain what is personal space and why it is sacred.
Image courtesy: The Hindu