A Stanford University graduate, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati recounts her experience as a young foreign visitor to the country and writes why there is no concept of either personal space or privacy in India.
If one more person pushes me around I'm going to scream," says the young Britisher barely able to hold back her tears as she makes her way. For the rest of the crowd at the aarti or ritual propitiating gods with lamps, such pushing and shoving is absolutely normal. It is a part and parcel of Indian life. And it is not because of overcrowding. The reason runs much deeper. It's something a foreign visitor, unexposed to Indian culture, finds difficult to comprehend.
After living in India for nearly 15 years, I have realized that there is no concept of personal space here, the way we understand it in the West. In the West, there is a universally accepted 'buffer zone', physically and emotionally, which can be trespassed only by very close friends and relatives. If two people perforce get too close for comfort — unless of course there is romance brewing — social mores dictate that a respectable distance is immediately established.
In India this is not the case. If two people are sitting next to each other, and there is a little bit of space between them, a third person will come and squeeze himself between them without realizing that he has transgressed their privacy or committed a social faux pas. I don't remember the number of times someone has come and literally sat on my lap at social gatherings. 'How the hell did that burly woman think she could squeeze herself in without sitting on my legs?' I would wonder. But, for her there was nothing wrong with that. My legs, my lap, my personal space could be transgressed without the slightest hesitation. There would be no sense of apology or embarrassment.
If there is no concept of personal space, how can it be violated?
The same is true of emotional privacy. "Are you married? Why aren't you married? How come your parents let you come to India? How much money do you make?" The questions come gushing like a stream upon an unsuspecting bather who went into a pond for a relaxing dip, and was caught in a torrential downpour. The look of bewilderment and embarrassment on your face doesn't deter the questioner. There is no realization of the invasion of personal space because for them it just does not exist.
Let India Enter You
India is not a country which can be seen from a distance. It is not a country which can be captured through the lens of a camera. It is a country which can only be experienced. And it can be understood only once it has entered and affected every single cell of your being. To try to hold India at arm's length is like holding back a tsunami. And that's the beauty of India. You need to see India, not from the outside, but from the inside — from an Indian perspective. It is then that its soul shines through. Once the real India has entered your being, it will turn you upside down, inside out and you'll be able to appreciate its real beauty.
The West can be held at a distance. One can 'visit' and 'see' Europe, visiting its cities, countryside, cathedrals and monuments, but India can't just be seen or visited; it needs to be experienced. You have to get into its skin. And it's only then that you benefit from the experience; just like a medicine can heal only after it can permeate the cell wall, in the same way, India can heal you provided you really live the India experience.
Feel adopted, Not Violated
When I came to India, I took to wearing sarees, and I wore them badly, so badly in fact, that every time I went out of the ashram, some woman or the other would come up to me, grab the badly done pleats, re-do them and tuck them back neatly into the petticoat. The first time it happened, I was flabbergasted. I thought: "Oh my God. That woman just stuck her hands into my underwear."
Then I paused to think. I looked at it from another perspective and the whole thing seems so normal, so comforting. Instead of thinking that a stranger had violated my personal space, I thought: "Wow. That woman just did for me what she would have done for her own daughter. That woman just adopted me."
Instead of feeling violated, I felt adopted. Day after day, I was adopted in various ways by any number of Indian women, and I loved it.
Everyone is Family
India is a country where everyone is family. Everyone you meet is either an uncle or aunty, a bhai or behen — these are ubiquitous suffixes to every name. The concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, that the world is one family, is not just a trite platitude. It is truly the way India operates. If she's my aunt, then there's nothing wrong with her sitting half-way into my lap. If she is my mataji she can put her hands in my underwear to fix my saree.
When someone squeezes herself between you and your friend or when someone asks personal questions, let's pause and tell ourselves: 'We have a choice. We can either feel violated or adopted.'
A trip to India can be either divinely beautiful and heartwarming or infuriatingly nerve-wracking. Does any other country offer such a choice?