I have never really thought about the idea of a personal space critically. I first came across this concept in my twelfth-grade Psychology textbook and since then I hadn’t given it much thought. Now, when this Global Pandemic is raging all over the world, and the boundaries of personal space are being negotiated, it becomes all the more imperative to rethink the concept of personal space and how much of it is political, because, after all, the personal is the political.
Places that were once considered private, have now turned into deadly hotspots for the virus to breed. People all over the world have had to establish their boundaries and re-emphasize personal spaces. But the idea of personal space is deeply exclusionary. Not all of us have the privilege to establish boundaries and carve spaces for ourselves. Our personal space is defined by our identity, class, caste, and gender. In India, personal spaces are defined by one’s social position. Underprivileged people who live in dire conditions don’t have the privilege to establish their boundaries. India is a country that is still plagued by age-old traditions of the caste system. Even though untouchability is constitutionally abolished, caste-based discrimination continues to foster.
It should then not be surprising to learn that the pandemic reaffirmed India’s caste, class, and gender inequalities.
What does personal space mean to people who have been routinely discriminated against under the guise of purity and pollution? When the lockdown was first announced, it was the marginalised groups who were the victims of the State’s rushed regulations. Forced to return to their homes, they were left to their own devices without any help from the government. In this situation, their well-being was threatened and their safety depended on their social position. They couldn’t afford to isolate themselves because they lacked the privilege to stay inside their homes.
Worse among this lot are marginalised women, some of whom have no autonomy over themselves to even think of establishing boundaries. Even when women try to establish their boundaries, their personal space is often violated and treated arbitrarily. In a patriarchal society gender and sexual minorities are repeatedly threatened and their boundaries are constantly violated. In India, public spaces are especially hostile towards disabled people. Public spaces are rendered inaccessible for them due to the lack of proper infrastructure. For disabled people, these spaces become dangerous and hostile territories. Thus it becomes important for the majority groups to give up their privilege and make spaces safe and comfortable for marginal groups that are vulnerable in this casteist, classist, ableist, and patriarchal society.
It is a universally acknowledged fact that personal spaces are integral to one’s well-being. Even though the term may have become popular only recently, the anxiety one experiences when someone comes 'too close' is ancient. Neuroscientist Michael Graziano, author of the book The Spaces Between Us, in an article for the National Geographic notes that “The brain computes a buffer zone around the body.” A type of “second-skin” that is fed into our DNA. The brain creates a flexible buffer zone around the body, that changes in size according to context. This buffer zone facilitates our social interaction and impacts our understanding of each other and, subsequently, the world.
The lack of personal space in India stems from the fact that the Indian culture is built on community values, where individuals are closely tied to the society they inhabit. Samira Gupta, an Image consultant and executive coach, notes that “there is no awareness of something called 'personal space'. It is cultural along with early conditioning. We Indians are a close-knit community: grown-up children sleep in the same room as parents, married men live with their parents, anyone can pinch the cheeks of a small kid, and that is considered okay.”
Recently, I traveled by metro and was satisfied to find it empty, unlike the usual days when it’s filled with bodies. Personal space doesn’t exist in public transports. People squeeze, push and stack against each other fighting for space, in an already overcrowded vehicle. In India, this phenomenon is normalized to such an extent that we don’t even mind it anymore. But the Covid-19 Pandemic has brought to light issues which had been brushed under the rug. One of them is the issue of over-crowding which has become normalized in almost all major cities of the country. Reformed regulations, specifying the numbers of passengers boarding public transports can go a long way in solving the problem of over-crowding in public transports.
The nature of a public space defines the character and existence of a private space.
Personal space doesn't exist in a vacuum, it is directly related to the larger socio-political context and the actual physical space one occupies. The privilege of having personal space and privacy is not afforded to everyone. In a country like India, the concept of personal space becomes all the more complex when tied up with the caste, class, and gender dimensions. Public spaces that have inherently been exclusionary need to be reclaimed and redefined. In the age of technology, personal space and privacy has taken a new meaning. In this era of surveillance, how much privacy are we really being afforded? How much of this personal space is really ours, when factors bigger than us constantly reshape our private existence?
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Chinmayee Babbal. Chinmayee is a student of English Literature at St. Stephen’s College. A hoarder of books, poetry, and music, she is an avid reader and an occasional writer.