"Thoda andar jaao na." a middle-aged aunty asks me as I sit at the edge of my train seat. Ah, the fourth seat. What a beautiful way to really get all up into someone's personal space.
Once she sits down next to me, in that little space that barely exists, she leans on to me for support. I take out my phone, ignoring her, and scroll through my Instagram. Turns out, my feed isn't only curated for me. Every single person around me has now seen the memes, the farewell pictures and the open declarations of love.
I get up to get off at Andheri and all I can see are heaps of bodies inside and outside. Wading my way through all these people, I finally make it to the metro station. More people get updates on the lives of my friends and colleagues, and then I get home.
I don't think there is a single place in Mumbai where someone can just sit to take in the air, without smelling the faint remains of sweaty men and the chatter of middle-aged women.
Finding personal space in India is like asking for an empty train at 7 o clock, never going to happen.
Is The Lack Of Personal Space Just A Cultural Habit?
At the supermarket, the line behind has their carts pushed up right against you, at the coffee shop, the person behind you can smell your hair, and at Marine Drive, everyone around you knows all your stories.
But why is it that we have no concept of personal space? Did we just pick it up from our parents and friends?
India has always built a culture of appreciating community values and common identity. Countries like Japan, China and America rely more on individualistic values and identities.
In this country, we tend to have a sense of community like no other. Every Mumbaikar just seems to empathize with the other, every Hindu with another, every Muslim with another and it goes on.
Our identity is based on community and factions, this is why most of us seem to treat the other like our own. In most families personal space is non-existent, and we do the same in public spaces.
The strong sense of community we feel towards others is just the result of our collective values and morals.
So Why Is It Such A Big Deal?
While our cultural values are important, individualism is the biggest sense of self we have. Having your personal space invaded feels like a lack of respect to exactly that.
Through community-based morals are wonderful on their own, public spaces have a general sense of decorum.
In the midst of all the overcrowding in the country, population-wise, it can get suffocating and tiring to be stared at and to have constant physical contact with strangers.
Even when we sit alone at a park, with empty benches all around us, we somehow still find ourselves surrounded by people on the same bench as us.
Maybe its just the lack of understanding of personal space because we have never been taught to practice it. How do we exercise something we never learned?
We see men holding hands down the street in a country that can't stand the idea of homosexuality and hold masculinity on high ground. But it's so common because personal space is just a lost concept in India.
What We Think
In an overcrowded, packed to the brim country, setting some boundaries just becomes important after some time.
One can only endure so much budging, pushing and touching. Though the concept of community values is heartwarming and essential to our being, maybe public spaces are not the appropriate areas for it?
If you're still wondering why personal space is such a big issue, and why the lack of it is concerning, you can read up about proxemics and understand better!