Friday, 20 January 2006

Personal space and privacy in India

Due to popular demand (i.e. from my mother, who complains I don’t have enough pictures of people going about their daily lives in the traffic and on the streets) I have decided to try to describe the everyday culture that meets a traveler from the West on his first trip to the subcontinent India.

The very first thing that strikes you is that there are just incredibly many people in India. Compared even to a fairly urbanized country like Denmark, you will just see people everywhere. Even on a quiet residential street in the middle of the night you will inevitably see some people moving around, riding bikes etc. And when you get into crowded markets, the density of people can become so high as to be almost unbearable for a Scandinavian boy such as myself used to plenty of space to move on.

Of course living in a country with such an incredibly densit
y of people affects the culture of that land. For instance Indians just don’t have the luxury of being particularly fussy about concepts such as privacy and personal space. Their standards are simply worlds apart from ours in the west. This can be seen for instance when standing in line. It is not as in e.g. China where there is no line and people just hustle and push each other to get first to the bus/train/ticket counter or whatever is being waited for. No, the Indians do keep the line (most of the time). The problem is that the line will be so compressed that the guy behind you is literally glued to your back. This is of course understandable in a situation where there is severe scarcity of space. But he will be glued to your back, even if you and him are the only two people in line! And furthermore once you get to the counter he will not wait behind you, but go up right next to you, so he can follow everything that goes on and also put forth his money and wave it in front of your face so the clerk can see he is next – and again he will do this even if you are the only two people in line. That sort of behaviour is completely acceptable in India, but can very quickly get on a westerner’s nerves.

The missing concept of personal space also means it can be hard to have conversations with ordinary Indians (of course this doesn’t apply to Delhi upper middle class, who knows all about interacting with westerners and largely have adopted or de
veloped many cultural practices similar to ours). They will simply lean over so close when talking to you, that if you stick out your tongue it will hit their nose.

When you combine this lack of respect for the +1 meter of personal space that westerner’s enjoy with the enormous curiosity that Indians outside the biggest tourist spots have towards westerners, it can for some people become quite unbearable to explore the roads less travelled in India. If you stand at a small town train station and start reading a book or looking through the pictures on your digital camera, you can be certain that within minutes you will have 4-5 Indians standing right behind you looking over your shoulder. I kid you not!

However, it is important to stress that none of this is meant as lack of respect. This is just the normal cultural standard of the land, and in most cases Indians are as respectful and friendly towards westerners as they know how to be. Their enormous curiosity probably underlines that. In many smaller cities the arrival of westerners is an event out of the extraordinary. It must also be said that slowly I have begun to adjust to the different standards of social interaction and the inevitable stares no longer affect me the slightest.

Of course there are many, many other aspects to India’s rich culture than just the few annoyances I have talked about here. This is however one of the first things a westerner notices and since first impressions can tend to stick these are the main impressions some people come home with. That is a shame, because there is so much more to India. I will try to write about that in a later post.

I include lastly a few pictures to illustrate my point:

Smalltown, Uttar Pradesh. We stopped for a cricket game and quickly found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of people. A totally surreal experience. At this point the crowds have quieted down a bit and we had managed to get out our cameras. But still many stares. As a point of curiosity, this picture was actually taken because a bus suddenly drove over the playing field.

Crowded market. Notice how closely people in the background are actually standing without being bothered.


The SeaWitch said...

I'm finding your blog ever so interesting. I like the fact that you comment on differences instead of complain about them like I do in my blog. Although, the lack of personal space would be enough for me to hightail it out of India after a couple of weeks. I would be too claustrophobic. Even Athens is almost unbearable for a Canadian like me where our next door neighbours are often 5 km. away!

I love the photo of your sister wearing the tradtional Bishnoi costume. She looks wonderful!

Ave said...

as they say, When in rome , live like a roman" or dont come at all!