Covid-19 Might Teach Indians What Nothing Else Could – How to Respect Personal Space


Covid-19 Might Teach Indians What Nothing Else Could – How to Respect Personal Space

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

These are novel times, brought on by the novel coronavirus. The world as we knew it has changed. In our Brave, New World, there is no bumper-to-bumper traffic, and no crowded markets. Barring the odd dog, the roads are deserted. There are no children playing ball in the bylanes or office-goers marching off to find a taxi. There are no taxis. Or buses. Or trains. We are in lockdown proper and there is almost nowhere to go.

Except, the supermarket. And even that has changed. I went to one the other day and was strongly reminded of my school Physical Education teacher. The “one-arm” distanced, disciplined queue I found there would have made her proud. I had never seen such a sight at a supermarket before. Instead of the usual throngs of customers pouring onto billing counters like Thanos’ Chitauri spilling out of their spaceships, I saw orderly queues respecting fellow consumers. When a young man received a call and stepped slightly away from the queue, nobody swooped in to take his place! For the first time at the supermarket nobody jumped queues. Nobody started their own special queues – to be first in line – by pretending like they hadn’t seen the existing ones.

What is sad though, is that it took a global pandemic to teach us how to queue up properly. It took the fear of being infected to teach us to respect personal space. If there’s one lesson, we collectively learn from Covid-19, I hope this is it. Oh and respecting the environment, of course.

Us Indians are notorious for intruding into the other’s personal space. Whether physically, by nearly hitching a ride on your co-passenger’s backpack when boarding the bus, or metaphorically, by asking the same co-passenger their “annual package”, we Indians stick too close for comfort. Perhaps it comes from living packed like sardines in matchbox-sized flats, or maybe it comes from living together in joint families where everybody knows everybody else’s poop schedules. Whatever it is, we need to understand that privacy is a sovereign right.

Maybe – just maybe – the Covid-19-induced distancing will become a habit and ingrain itself into our psyche. Maybe it will have far-reaching effects. Maybe the post-Covid-19 world would be one where women can go to a liquor shop without having to contend with a bunch of men huddled up like players in a football game. Maybe we will be able to get past the huddle without many a stern “Excuse me”. Maybe we can even board an aircraft without having someone’s oversized belly rub into our backs or having to smell the pan-laced breath of the fellow behind us. And maybe our temples will turn into peaceful places of spirituality sans the pushing and shoving for a two-second “darshan”.

Maybe – just maybe – the Covid-19-induced distancing will become a habit and ingrain itself into our psyche.

When we go to the multiplex to watch Lion King, maybe we will learn to fetch our 3D glasses without stampeding like the wildebeest that cause poor Simba to run away. (Someday we may even learn to return said 3D glasses in a civilized, orderly manner.) When we go to a wedding, maybe we won’t have to hustle our way to the bride and groom fending off the hordes of well-wishers trying to get the wishing out of the way so that they can head to dinner.

Also, now that many of us are living in uncomfortably close quarters with family/friends/relatives for the entire lockdown, can we hope that we might understand the concept of personal space and privacy within the family? For instance, now that parents understand how annoying it is to be interrupted in the midst of a concall by a hungry teenager, they might start giving their teenage kids some space and not snoop about their WhatsApp conversations.

Now that neighbourhood aunties have developed worthier hobbies (because the belles of the mohalla are no longer stepping out of the house and they have no one to keep an eye on), they might put an end to the Neighbourhood Watch. Perhaps strangers might mind their own business instead of asking whether you’re married or not?

In the post-Covid world, maybe we will all focus on bettering our own selves before asking these and more inane questions.

That got me thinking – What will it take to cure us from other ills? What about spitting on the roadside? Perhaps a virus that jumps out jack-in-the-box like, out of the paan gunk and hitches a ride on the perpetrator? Want to do away with smoking? How about a Dementor-like creature born of a nicotine haze that sucks the joy out of all who smoke? Because clearly cancer is no deterrent. And every time someone litters, an evil plastic giant adds the latest biscuit-packet to his ever-growing body and wreaks vengeance on the populace. As for our politicians’ tall promises, the Pinocchio virus might be a good solution. They’d end up with noses to match their egos.

Of course, every virus has its day. The plague came and went, as did SARS and MERS. One day Covid-19 too will be a distant unpleasant memory. But the lessons learnt from the coronavirus epidemic will be welcome to stay.