Dear Indians, We Really Need to Talk About Personal Space


Dear Indians, We Really Need to Talk About Personal Space

Illustration: Sushant Ahire/Arré


fter a long, hard day of slaving over my desk in an airconditioned office, I walked straight to the neighbouring Lower Parel station, not wishing to encounter another human being I’d be forced to make social contact with. A refreshingly short queue of three at the ticket counter gave me life – someone up there must be listening to me – and a rare occasion to smile at a local train station in Mumbai.

As I found my place in the line, earphones plugged in, I found another reason to smile. Not only was the queue moving forward rather briskly, the gentleman behind me seemed more and more eager to climb into my rectum with each step. All I had to do now was either change my sexuality, or buy him a cup of tea and explain the concept of personal space.


Instead, my day caught up with me, and I used the rather eloquent, if loud, rejoinder, “Gaand mein ghusega kya, chutiye?”

Then I took a deep breath, turned around, paid for a ticket to Churchgate, and walked right past him. Unfortunately, no tea or thoughts about personal space were exchanged that evening, which is what brings us here. You’re probably reading this somewhere sorta crowded, aren’t you?

People will stare you in the face, unfazed by your discomfort. They will ask for a sliver of a fourth seat on the train, even if they have to park themselves on your leg.

A buzzing open-plan office where colleagues are constantly leaning over your chair to casually comment on the email you’re writing. Or the college café where the decibel level is the indicator of early youth and boundless energy. Or maybe at home, where mom hovers behind you just enough to be able to eavesdrop on the conversation you’re having on the phone.

Of course, this is our normal. In this great nation, there are so many of us to go around with bucketfuls to spare, that we’ve never been familiar with the concept of personal space.

People will stare you in the face, unfazed by your discomfort. They will ask for a sliver of a fourth seat on the train, even if they have to park themselves on your leg. About a fortnight before Lower Parel Rectum Bro, I was napping in the train after an exhausting trek. Bag clutched in my arms like a newborn, I was probably smellier than fish from three days ago. That, however, did not deter the dude who woke me up and asked me to “adjust”, to slide into a seat that doesn’t even exist. Only to get off at the next station.  

Rank strangers will put an arm around you when they want to read the newspaper over your shoulder. The chaps you’ve never spoken to in your colony, will come and smear your faces on Holi. We take this attitude everywhere. Mohalla aunties will police your timings, the uncle you’re meeting for the first time on the train will ask for your pay package, distant relatives will worry about your rishta. It’s our business to stick our noses in everyone’s business.  

How does one begin to explain this basic concept?

I understand being cramped in places and spaces that are cramped by design, like nearly all public transport during peak hours in most parts of the world. How though, does one explain Rectum Bro’s behaviour in an environment where he could have done two backflips? Should I have told him, “Yo, sir, there’s nobody behind you, can you maintain ‘one-arm distance’ please?”

Even at parties at five-star hotels, I’ve seen morons invading a waiter’s personal space. A few days ago, I witnessed an uncle-type holding a waiter by the arm while seeking his recommendations on what to order. I felt three things as this scene played out in front of me: First, I appreciated the waiter’s professionalism and patience in not stabbing Arm Aadmi Uncle with a fork. Second, what sort of a person is Arm Aadmi Uncle to not find such hand-holding out of place? Third, I must be very inefficient at dating if Arm Aadmi Uncle could simply hail someone and break the touch barrier in 17 seconds flat. (Ladies, please hit me up and let me know that I’m doing okay?)

In this poor man’s mosh pit that we are all stuck in, do we need the heat from each others’ bodies to stay alive? Or are just some of us more handsy than others? In which case, can we please find all of them and give them Fevicol t-shirts so that the rest of us know who to avoid at parties?

We need to put an end to this madness. Ditching the deodorant helps. Or maybe we could all start wearing those fantastic spike vests. Or maybe it’s time to break all those investments and retire to the hills where you can hang out with goats or something like the upper-class snoots we know we are.

PS: I still haven’t found Rectum Bro to clear the air. If you find someone crawling up the seam of your trousers, do let him know a steaming cup of chai, an apology, and an explanation awaits him at Lower Parel station.