Right to Privacy? Under Parental Guidance Only


Right to Privacy? Under Parental Guidance Only

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

As I watched the news on the right to privacy unfold during my train commute from Kandivali last week, seven people watched it on my phone with me. Over my head. Under my arm. There was one even resting his head on my shoulder and commenting as we went along. Privacy in India is not only an ideological and moral issue, but it is also a physical issue.

In a country where any relative may take it upon himself to accost you mid-party about how much you earn and whether you and your girlfriend are still virgins, privacy has never really existed, no matter what the Supreme Court may say. It may have ruled that privacy is a fundamental right of every citizen, but try telling that to your parents. Our homes and our lives in India have their own parallel legal system. Every house has its own Supreme Court and it’s presided over by two judges who will laugh in your face if you utter the P-word.

Parents start invading our personal space right from our childhood, when they begin assiduously tracking our friends. We’ve all had that one friend who we really liked as a kid, but who our parents didn’t approve of, for reasons they developed after extensively snooping around our diaries or eavesdropping on telephone conversations. And then came the mobile phone, making their jobs so much easier.

Back in the day, phone locks weren’t a thing. In my house, shit hit the roof when my dad first interrogated me about a party that served alcohol. The idea of my phone as a weapon for spying hadn’t struck me until then. Russell Peters’ wise words came back to me: “Someone gonna get a hurt real bad tonight.” My phone became a weapon that my parents turned to in many situations. Right in the middle of an argument, my mom would demand, “Give me your phone, let me check.” Suddenly panic would flood the brain. “What do I do now? Should I just delete all my Whatsapp chats? Or should I just format the SD card?” As Indian kids, we’ve learnt to be more careful with the content on our phones than Donald Trump is with nuclear codes.

By the time college approaches, an Indian mother’s radar goes into overdrive. Each one of them believes with total conviction, “Ab toh yeh haath se nikal jaayega. He is going to be in bad company, fail his exams, drink, and get stoned.” For moms, college years are basically an endless trip to Goa with a degree thrown in randomly at the end.  

“Baccha settle ho gaya” is just stuff that they say to each other when they’re drinking tea and chomping on samosas, but the minute refreshments are done with, the meddling resumes.

My parents believe in multiple religions and various gods, but one thing they don’t believe in, is knocking on my room door before entering. Porn is impossible to watch, and sometimes even if you’re just using your phone under the blanket, they will look at you with the kind of deep disappointment that Amitabh Bachchan reserves for Abhishek.  

You would think this invasion of privacy ends when one attains adulthood. But I have been told not to believe in that line of thought. “Baccha settle ho gaya” is just stuff that they say to each other when they’re drinking tea and chomping on samosas, but the minute refreshments are done with, the meddling resumes. Sticking their ear to doors to overhear conversations, tracking the incoming and outgoing movements of couples, to the state of the marriage, is all par for the course. Parents trying to intervene in matters between you and your partner is like a foreign government trying to hack an election in a different country. The result is always disastrous.

I am 24 now, and I have learnt that no matter how old you are, hiding any sort of information from your parents will not end well. It will invariably lead to the great condescending question being raised: “Have you become so old now that you will hide things from us?” Please note, there is no correct way to answer this question. You can never win. Anything you say will be held against you for the rest of your life.

So when I think of the right to privacy and my mother and father, and various uncles and aunts, and neighbours and train travellers, I feel that the only P-word, we as a society truly believe in, is not privacy, but prying. And no Supreme Court can change that.