The curious relationship between Indians and personal space

‘All generalizations are false, including this one’ – probably Mark Twain.

Indians have a curious relationship with personal space. We believe it’s negotiable. It’s not a reflection on our lack of etiquette or decorum, but simply an evolutionary necessity. When 1.3 bn people try to cram into a shared auto to go from Rajendranagar to Gachibowli or queue up to withdraw money from Chennai airport ATM, respect for personal space becomes a tradition more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Personal space violators come in many forms. A few samples include

  1. Grocery Ganesan – you see him once a week at the grocery till. He will lurk behind you at the till, pushing through with his cart of Baggry’s oats, milk and brinjal at the exact moment you start unloading your cart onto the cashier’s counter. You may end up paying for his items too, by mistake. But it’s ok. He’s a gentleman and won’t complain.
  2. Ticket Thomas – He is the guy behind you in every queue in India. Except he’s not technically behind you, at least not in his view, since the concept of queuing is alien to his delicate sensibilities. You see, queuing requires maintaining an unhealthy distance from the person in front of you. A distance large enough to induce FOMO– the fear of missing out on a competition. So Ticket Thomas will stand as close as he can to you to maximize his chances of reaching the end of the queue quickly. And he won’t stand quietly. Like a good lover, he will spoon you from behind, the sides and sometimes, even above. I have had several instances where a third hand has miraculously evolved from the general area of my underarm and proceeded to pay the ticket collector at movie theatres. When I turn back in astonishment (I generally tend to get astonished upon noticing that I have sprouted an extra arm), Thomas usually smiles and nods his head in silent encouragement, as if to say, ‘It’s ok, carry on. I’ll just stand here quietly with my arm through yours. No big deal.’ It’s all the more worse when he gets the ticket before me.
  3. Escape Estheppan – He loves flying until the exact moment the plane lands on the tarmac and starts taxiing, at which instant he turns into an aviophobe. His sole purpose in life then becomes to exit the plane as fast as possible. The process of exiting a plane under normal circumstances is fairly simple, if elaborate. First, the pilot announces the temperature and wind condition outside the plane in case you had any plans of sailing out of the airport. Then he announces that you are supposed to keep your seatbelts on until the seatbelt sign goes off. That’s when Estheppan starts his disembarkation process. He unties his seatbelt and edges forward in his seat. When the taxiing plane comes to a halt he jumps up irrespective of whichever seat he happens to be in – window, middle or aisle. Once his head reaches the vertical vicinity of the overhead compartment, he proceeds to open it. After a few pieces of luggage showers onto the heads of his co-passengers, he manages to find his own cabin baggage, and clutches it to his chest. This is followed by a breathless wait for a chance to jump into the aisle, minutes filled with trembling excitement as he pushes against the inanimate body of Savitri ammal in the seat next to him, the said Ammal having been rendered unconscious by a shower of American Tourister bags on her head. Once he spies an opening, he rushes headlong to the exit, leaving the twitching bodies of Savitri ammal and a few miscellaneous children in his wake.
  4. Urinal Unni – Have you ever been to a men’s urinal in a movie theatre? Even if the entire urinal is free, Urinal Unni will insist on using the stall right next to you. There is a fine line between uncomfortable physical closeness and outright sexual harassment, and Urinal Unni draws and redraws that line constantly with a stream of urine. You get so engrossed in trying to ensure he isn’t sneaking a peek that you often forget to zip up after finishing your business.

So, tourists in this beautiful land of ours, do not get put off by Ganesans and Estheppans. This is how we are. You will find Ganesans in most grocery stores, and Estheppans on most flights. Have you ever walked down the crowded alleyways of Mumbai, and felt a light push against your tushy from the anonymity of the crowd? Have you ever stood in a crowded metro train and felt a third hand spouting from between your armpits? Congratulations – you have been pick-pocketed. Call the police.

If your wallet is intact, chalk the experience down to Indians negotiating your personal space. In a world where people are moving further away from each other along ideological lines, where Kapil Sharma and Sunil Grover have split up, where Karan Johar is refusing to speak to Kajol, a little benign invasion of personal space might be a good thing. Except with Trump and Korea. Or Trump and Mexico. Or Trump and Ivanka. Or Trump and human beings in general.

PS: Mrs. Domesticated Kid reminds me that I forget to zip up even if Urinal Unnis are absent from the scene. I must see someone about that. And make sure no one sees me in the meantime.

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