More than 3,000 dead and close to a lakh infected in over 60 countries from coronavirus, but even this may not be enough to make Indians respect other people’s personal space.
Just this morning, as I was on my way to work in the Delhi Metro, armed with my N95 mask, a lady came and made herself too comfortable on the seat next to me, which was already occupied. Sitting uncomfortably close to two people, packed like sardines, the only thought racing through my mind was: What will it take for Indians to stop invading personal space?
Not coronavirus, clearly.
In a country where 24×7 commitment to work is worshipped instead of being treated as foolish, India’s workplaces offered one bottle of sanitiser to get us through this deadly outbreak. Meanwhile, multinational firms like HSBC, UBS, Nestle have curbed business travel, governments have shut down schools, and people are emptying sanitisers and buying masks like there is no tomorrow. And yet, Indians just won’t stop invading personal spaces in public transports. It’s almost as if the fear isn’t real and the Delhi Metro is a safe (read sanitised) space.
What’s personal space
The Delhi Metro, while making the lives of millions of people easier, has turned into a chamber where the concept of personal space simply does not exist. Standing in queues at the ticketing counter or at the security line, there is always someone who creeps up close to my neck as if doing that will fast-track him/her to the metro.
But let’s face it, this is not exclusive to the Delhi Metro.
Getting off a lift in India is a tough task. Everyone getting in thinks s/he is in a race. Empty or not, they must set foot inside first, because God forbid if that doesn’t happen, they will lose precious few seconds of their life reaching that coveted floor they would otherwise fly to if they could. I can’t remember the last time I stood at a distance from someone in my office building lift or at malls.
Indians in aircraft are so popular they inspire memes now. Even movie theatres are not exempt from such behaviour. The last scene is barely off the screen and people are ready to get up, stub on some toes, drop popcorn on someone’s head and rush out as if a bomb was discovered or the fire alarm went off.
It lives among us, like a virus
This practice of invading personal space is so ingrained that knocking on one’s door is hardly a common practise in Indian households, locking your room door can earn a grave punishment. Respecting one’s personal space must seem as alien to us as an uncorrupt government.
The fact of the matter is, Indians don’t think it’s incorrect or impolite to nudge the person in front of them in a queue, or peep into the text messages of the person sitting next to them, or even rest arms on someone else’s shoulder for added comfort. Can you even fathom that Japanese consider it rude to stare? Looks like our Indian aunties didn’t get the memo.
India’s population has crossed a billion. There are way too many people and not enough space or resources. It’s going to get much worse before we realise that population control is something to seriously think about. Our ever-increasing population could be a reason why respecting and acknowledging one’s personal space is not the norm. It is, in fact, a part of our ethos.
Learn from others
Countries from across the world are adapting safer methods of greetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even appealing to the citizens to avoid shaking hands and go for the Indian Namaste instead.
The coronavirus outbreak has resulted in a widespread change in global habits. Videos of a new “handshake” from Wuhan have gone viral with people coming up with the foot-to-foot shaking. One of Spain’s oldest traditions — kissing a statue of the Virgin Mary in the week leading up to Easter — has also taken a hit. The country’s national health official Fernando Simon said banning the ritual “is one of the measures that are on the table”.
Meanwhile, the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation has undertaken measures to prevent the spread of the virus and instead spread awareness. Now in the mornings at Central Secretariat metro station, precautionary announcements reverberate. It has been a week since the virus has been making headlines but people in the metro continue to “share” a fifth of a seat. Maybe they just can’t believe they could be victims of coronavirus.