Millennium Post

No space for space

In India, the concept of personal space is alien—whether at home, or on the train, or even, in life

No space for space
One of my biggest pet peeves in life has been the issue of space. Having grown up in a compact Kolkata flat, I loathed the lack of space and privacy. Shacking up with my roommates while in college and eventually, flatmates early on in my work life, stressed me out internally. I was thrilled to finally be able to afford my own digs; obviously, I sacrificed on several other counts for the luxury of my own space. Small price to pay for autonomy, I always thought.
Over the last decade or so, very few, mostly chosen, people have been allowed into my sanctum sanctorum. Most are allowed to cohabit my precious space only for the short-term and only if deemed absolutely necessary. If it is a rare long-term coexistence, I expect the recipient to appreciate my graciousness. The latter does not obviously happen; but in my head, I would like it to. To put it succinctly, I love my space and I share it sparingly.
In India though, the concept of personal space is alien. Most parents, even today, urge their young adult children to live within the protective emotional and physical precincts of the family home rather than venture out into the world. In order to live by themselves, youngsters have to shift cities just so that it seems more socially acceptable. Living independently while one's parents live in the same city is yet to catch on. I am glad I have done that; enjoying my parents' indulgences while being able to retreat to my own space at the end of the day.
The concept of personal space is not just about mental space, it is about physical space too; not easy in a country where we jostle for space on a daily basis. The other day, I was making my way out of the aircraft, one of the last few to get off. I consciously get off late in order to allow the other passengers, who always seem to be in a hurry, to alight first. I had failed to see the woman behind me—who insisted on first pushing my backpack and then me, repeatedly. When I asked her to stop, she looked shocked! I did not push her, she told her husband. What I thought to be pushing was to her well-meaning prodding. I am not cattle, I wanted to tell her. I still fail to understand why we as a nation insist on jumping up and crowding the passageway in the aircraft as soon as the plane lands. Why are we in such a hurry? Where exactly are we headed? We honk incessantly at traffic signals, hoping that the vehicles ahead of us develop wings?
With Chandigarh Airport closed for upgradation, I had to take the Shatabdi this week for an event. As I waited for the train on a bench at the platform, I was accosted by another woman wanting me to make space for her on the bench. As I moved to accommodate her, the rotund woman not only plonked herself down, she also made space for her wimpy kid husband. To my protests that I barely had space to sit, she answered 'safar mein karna parta hain adjust' (you have to adjust in a journey). Her 'safar' was clearly my 'suffer', so I lifted her half buttock and one arm off of me, and asked her to sit comfortably; at least someone should.
We do not understand the concept of personal space. Stand in a line leaving a normal gap between the person in front of and behind you; invariably you will find someone slink into that gap. 'Almost senior citizens' want to be treated differently; they want to move on in front of you and expect you to 'kindly adjust'. Try to get off the metro, reassuring touches on the shoulders, waist, hands, is ensured to follow.
All this 'friendly touching' and inability to offer personal space to fellow citizens makes me believe that Indians are a scared lot. We have grown up knowing very little space; our homes are crowded, our public utilities brim at the seams with an ever-growing population; we are packed into transport vehicles like sardines, and many times, dangling from them holding on to our dear lives. Being so used to a cramped existence, we are afraid of being alone in any journey, whether it is on the train, flight, or life's sojourn. We need the reassurances of our family, and in their absence, co-passengers will do.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Shutapa Paul

Shutapa Paul

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