Personal Space and Public Transport

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


18 thoughts on “Personal Space and Public Transport

  1. hmmm…dunno abt the chennai buses, but the bangalore buses seem better, I think, even if they are fewer in number, and less frequent…

  2. Back home in Delhi, the favorite response if you object to someone pushing you, or violating your personal space, is “Itni problem hai to auto pe jaaya kar na!” I guess I don’t need to translate the dialogue, or specify the tone that it is said in!
    But one advantage of having travelled by the Delhi buses is that the Bombay local trains have never scared me 🙂

  3. Have tried buses in Chennai. Have you tried buses in Calcutta. Chennai is heaven in comparism in terms of ‘bus structure’ and space 🙂 but then ur priorities will change depending on how u use them. For me I love Cal buses as they egt u there fast, are very frequent and covers EVERY part of the city. I dont mind getting jostled a bit in the process – wud rather get there fast

  4. The buses from my residence to my erstwhile office were so crowded in the morning that I either had to shrink my bank balance paying those swindlers on three wheels – Delhi’s autowallahs or leave for office atleast an hour and a half early. Thanks to my money saving ventures and reluctance to travel in conditions which would give chicken a superiority complex, I got hooked to blogging. Early in the morning, alone at office – you don’t work, you blog.

    Coming back to personal space, the first time I felt it being violated (in non-physical terms) was staying away from home in an alien environment (where everyone wondered why I hailing from the Northeast didn’t resemble a Chinese) in ‘mainland’ India. Nobody seemed to have heard of the word called privacy. They kept barging in. We do need some emotional space around us and that also needs more than a little physical distance. I hate colleagues peering over my shoulder as I type an email.

    Talking of pushers, I too have a fair amount of experience with them and with pushers of the same variety. If you belonging to the same side of the gender divide could feel uncomfortable, imagine my plight. Thankfully, the new workplace is nearby and the buses are empty – I even get a window seat.

  5. i dread those buses in chennai…or elsewhere…and now that i am going to be in chennai for 2 months, starting mid nxt month for my summer project, i am already dreading the idea…maybe i should have clearly stated location preferred- anywhere but chennai…in a more serious sense, i found some aspects of the place quite nice in my earlier short visits in transit…on the way to west bengal from college in surathkal…i used to buy loads of 2nd hand books from the rail station bazaar…and used to visit spencer plaza…to get rid of the heat and humidity of the city…then again i liked th ebeach in the night and also i liked ramkrishna mission there…all in all i guess every place has its pro and cons…and one has to adjust…anyways lots of digression frm the personal space concept…but i believe that the last place to complain is any public space…

  6. hi

    In Gujarat We also have Such Kind of seens…Especially at the time of Holi when all GharGhatis from Rajasthan are going to their village….


    take care

  7. Agree with Prerona. Compared to Calcutta buses, Chennai’s buses are hi-tech. I have had the privilege (or misfortune) to have travelled in public transport buses in all the six metros in India. Overall, I would still put Chennai and Mumbai at the top and Bangalore at the bottom. But in terms of pushing and general courtesy in buses, Calcutta tops and of course, the lesser said about Delhi, the better.

    And hey, nice new drawing. If I send you a photo of mine, could you make one for me to put up on my blog? 🙂

  8. Hey
    surprise, surpirse! I finally managed to drop by re.

    COMing from you, nobody will believe it if they know that you are regular bus-wali! In the Pushers category, do you think you would be generous enough to inlcude people who rest their hands on your back or just lean on you for support;)))))

  9. Mmmm, a post about buses in Chennai… I’m obsessed with them, my nostalgia about Chennai centers on them. When I was in high school, I used to spend two hours a day in them, and got to know many of them on an individual basis!

    Whenever I visit, I make sure to take at least one ride on a bus, and get excited about new bus routes and numbers…

  10. Hey, so you finally did the bus post that I did not!!
    Well, I can undertand your anger. But you’ve missed one category. The women who just dump their bags on your lap without even muttering something that remotely sounds like ‘please’!!
    what say?

  11. I so identify with this post.Same problems in Mumbai.Coming abroad, I have realised that even making unnecessary eye contact is considered rude.We have a long long way to go to understand the concept of personal space, and actually have the masses respect it.

  12. You know, I dont understand why some people need to hug and kiss everyone in greeting. Im extremely uncomfortable about people I dont know too well hugging me, even if they mean well. And I haaaattttee people who keep standing practically on top of you to talk to you. Totally understand what you mean about people impinging on your personal space.Damn annoying!!

  13. Postd this comment under mystery egyptian style but figured it will be a while you see it .. so here it is
    “Change “woman” to “Italian” and all that needs to happen is “convening a meeting of all the powerful High Priests of Eqypt in order to ask them if there was any precedent that a woman ever sat on the throne” :-)”

  14. recently read an other post which talked about living in the same apartment building with absolute strangers. from a westerrn perspective it is okay, in India, it is almost blasphemous, not to know your neighbours and their distant once-in-a-year-arriving relatives. infact, you have to know them. otherwise you are a trashy snob. you are right, there is no such thing as ‘personal space’ in our social lexicon.

    i’ve always dreaded somebody infringing on my 6-inches-of-WHO-guidelined-space. and why worry about strangers in public transport, even our family, friends and colleagues forget this basic requirement. i may not like my space being infringed at certain times, even from people very close to me. say it, and you again turn into a curious creature who at best doesn’t know how to be socially acceptable.

    as for the public transport- travel in delhi’s ‘bluelines’ and you’ll thank god for the chennai ones. the pitures you posted could be from delhi, just make the bus colour blue or the light green and yellow of DTC ones. Delhi Transport Corporation is the government department whose buses never stop on the bus-stops. and bluelines are the private ones, which never seem to move after they’ve stopped.

    what ‘obi wan’ and ‘soumyadip’ said is so true. you’ll get the whole spectrum of delhi life in its buses. mostly the negative one.

    yes, you do meet the most lecherous, most undecent, literally the filth of humanity in these buses. just a few days ago, somebody picked my phone in one of these very buses. eve-teasing, drunken behaviour, rude staffers, all are a part of your daily travelling experience.

    & on the other hand, you get the most decent strangers you’ll ever come across in life, beautiful girls that seem more beautiful against the stark backgrounds and the best of human behaviour on display in the buses.

    i don’t know about other cities, but delhi’s buses are the life line of the city. coming of metro might be shifting this a bit, still if delhi is to be seen, it has to be seen through its buses.

    our public transport is the true mirror of what we are as a society. and if delhi travels in its buses, i would like it to be a little better than it is now.

  15. Nice to see a post about local buses…brings back some nice memories of childhood lol when climbing onto a bus was an exciting event..however the bus service in my city is so pathetically poor that I swear I don’t know when I last travelled on a local bus!!!

  16. I so completely agree with you on this. Thats why no buses for me unless I am travelling in a group but here too I try to drag them to the auto stand rather than face the bus. Too many bad experiences.

    The worst was standing in a queue once. This guy kept comin too close every time I had too move in front. after a point I just told him to move away literally said ur sticking urself to me and i dont like it so move away he just gave this sick grin…thats when my friends came to my rescue (who were standing in front me) and pushed him away.
    I mean what more can you do to such ppl? You yell at them in front of other ppl and they dont react…disgusting!

  17. Hey AFK,

    I have seen india buses in indian movies. I have been how crowded it gets and how people hand on the buses. and yeah its amazing how they can hold so long on da moving buses.

    an informative post for me..:)


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