A matter of privacy
Privacy in India is a luxury, no matter what class you belong to
We in India are in no danger of marking 25-inch boundaries to keep off strangers. Photo: N. Sridharan
THE SUICIDE rate in the U.S. normally shoots up during the Christmas season, when kith and kin traditionally come together to celebrate. Those with broken family ties must find the ambient cheerfulness acutely galling, to say the least. But many take their own lives, not because they miss the family, but because they have more family than they can stand. Buried feuds erupt, simmering rows come to the boil and before you can say "Yuletide" the jollity has melted clean away.
"It only happens in the West" is an argument I don't buy. I concede that Deepavali, to my knowledge, has not spurred anyone to take what crime reporters call "the extreme step" but there are signs that the urban Indian family has suffered a hard knock or two. Some years ago, a little news item appeared about a newly-wed couple in Marathahalli who had committed suicide. Joint family, rented house, working class background. Apparently, the young bride had often complained to her husband about "lack of privacy". She wanted to move to a separate house.
If lack of privacy could be a reason for a couple to kill themselves, what a can of worms that opens up! You might remember this other news report quite heartbreaking, actually about the police catching couples having sex in Cubbon Park at night. Many of them were lower class husbands and wives who shared their cramped tenements with their extended families and were trying to steal a few rare moments of their own.
Whichever class you belong to, privacy is a luxury in India. In the past, it was of no consequence whatsoever (to tom-tom a girl's first menstrual period to the whole world is not unusual even today). We laughed at those funny-sounding western phrases like "invading my space". The only space invasions we'd heard of were the Apollo missions. Children had no right to privacy. Parents snooped oh sorry, I mean they were absolutely duty-bound to monitor their offspring, open their letters, and read their diaries too. Our sprawling old houses were a free-for-all. Visitors walked in whenever they pleased. Rooms were shared, doors were never locked, and everyone knew who was using the loo. The single toilet was situated roughly 50 feet from the house and you had to carry your water with you. The sole bathroom sometimes had a creaky half-door that left you in perpetual danger of being burst in on. The bedroom-with-bath-attached was one of the first concessions to the nascent concept of privacy in India.
Look at a family today and you no longer see one large myopic blur; the separate elements in the picture are beginning to stand out and define themselves. But the middle class has been slow to learn that a modern urban environment demands modern attitudes, and that each individual's need for privacy must be acknowledged. When financial straits push six people into dimensions meant for three, what results is extreme breathlessness. You sense a lack of oxygen, a choking sensation in the chest and, strangely, a constriction about the head. Does the head need to breathe? You bet it does.
Paradoxically, those large roomy houses of the past where everybody got under everybody's feet did have corners into which you could vanish and remain undetected until someone came barging in, of course. Moving into a bigger house is not an option for most city dwellers, but there has been nothing short of a revolution in the joint family set-up. Remember what a sacrilege it used to be when the new daughter-in-law insisted on a separate kitchen? "Home-wrecker!" everyone hissed. But this hesitant attempt at carving out a personal space slowly gained legitimacy, and matured into the quiet revolution I just referred to: parents and married children living separately but close by. You see them occupy the same apartments but different flats, often on different floors.
Distant, yet close; apart, yet together sounds like a healthy way for a family to live, and I'm speaking of more than just architecture here. It is only in the movies that you meet the adarsh parivar, miraculously free of the jealousy, spite and pettiness that automatically arise when a large number of people live under the same roof. Lucky are those who enjoy breathing space for body and mind.
In the West, however, too much privacy has led to loneliness and paranoia. By the way, do you know that some decades ago scientists actually measured the distance you should keep when speaking to an American? If you stand closer than 25 inches he'll start backing away because you've invaded his space. But the more Americans guard their privacy, the more they turn into peeping toms. Hence the vicarious pleasure they derive through reality television (which is hardly real) and all those private acts (from sexual intercourse to giving birth) uploaded on the Net for the public to sample.
We in India are in no danger of marking 25-inch boundaries to keep off strangers. If we did, we wouldn't be able to use public transport, for a start. No, we'll never get obsessed about privacy. As long as we are comfortable answering fellow passengers on train journeys who ask us searching questions about our personal lives, don't worry, we're still Indian.
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