A Nation of Nosy Parkers: Why Indians Excel at the Art of “Panchayat”

Social Commentary

A Nation of Nosy Parkers: Why Indians Excel at the Art of “Panchayat”

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

When a group of Gujaratis get together for a family function, at least one hour is invariably spent bitching about someone, before the conversation naturally ends with, “Chodo ne, aapdu su? (Chuck it, how does it bother us?) For the longest time, I thought us Gujjus held an uncompromising monopoly over the art of “panchayat”, or as we mischievously call it, “daapan”. As it turns out, I was wrong. The act of poking your nose in someone else’s business is apparently a trait that’s common across the length and breadth of the country. It was exemplified by a few of our Kannadiga brothers last week, when they heckled a group of moviegoers who chose not to stand up for the national anthem. Apparently, in this country, it’s not enough to pay your own respects, but it’s important to have very strong opinions on what everyone else is doing as well. Whether it is moviegoers or maa-baap, we feel the need to impose our will on them.

As a people, it doesn’t take much for Indians to get physically and emotionally invested in problems that aren’t ours to deal with, and at times, even end up contributing to these problems. Every evening, there’s a crowd gathered on the skywalk over Kandivali station, watching a fist-fight or argument unravelling in the busy vegetable market below. Passers-by observe the crowd and join in with an enthusiastic, “Rada hua kya?” as if they’re getting free Diwali sweets to be a part of the spectacle.

In other countries, two people involved in a car accident share insurance papers and move on with their lives. In India, there is an immediate huddle around the “participants” as if they’re about to witness a dance-off. Spectators park their vehicles in the middle of the road, and no one leaves the arena until they’ve witnessed a nice juicy fight that has nothing to do with any of them. Our ability as a society to intrude into other people’s lives operates at legendary levels. The Supreme Court may have declared privacy to be a fundamental right but most of India hasn’t yet got the memo.

The act of poking your nose in someone else’s business is apparently a trait that’s common across the length and breadth of the country.

But panchayat isn’t simply pointless needling, It has real-life implications. Relatives go behind your back and sell you out if they spot you drinking a beer or having a smoke with friends. Only sanskaari fun is approved — like lighting firecrackers until someone chokes to death, or arranging a surprise marriage. If the society aunty sees you with a friend of the opposite sex, she has already pictured the two of you having sex, and word will spread around the building faster than fake news before an election. Relatives who visit you once a year, and need help finding your address, have an incredible amount of gyaan to dole out on the kind of clothes girls should wear at home, and why one should get married before 26, lest your life falter like SRK’s career in the last decade. Residential buildings in many parts of the city don’t give out houses to Muslim families or families who enjoy non-vegetarian food, because choice is an illusion, like eight per cent GDP growth and a good Arjun Kapoor film. 

Panchayat in India extends beyond the confines of friends and family. Even the State has turned meddling in our personal lives a full-time job. Forget the north-south language divide, suburban residents of Mumbai struggle to understand the Hindi spoken by Jai Hind college hipsters. The government, meanwhile, thinks it can get the entire country to speak a common language.

It’s also rekindling its Aadhaar fetish, contemplating if we should link our social media accounts to the card this time, so they can carry out surveillance projects from home, and the police can be reserved for more important endeavours, like hunting down Azam Khan’s cattle. People who beat up others for food used to be foragers once. Now they’re called gau-rakshaks, leaving a significant part of the country second-guessing whether their lunch was made with cow or buffalo meat. 

Basically if there’s something that unifies us as a country, it isn’t food, language, cricket or even hypernationalism, but a shared belief that we have the moral right to poke our noses in someone else’s business. We do it as individuals, in groups, in mobs, as a society, and even as elected officials. So maybe as we head toward the end of yet another year, we can all zero in on a New Year’s resolution that pays tribute to one of the old Hindi adages — “apne kaam se kaam rakho”.