Where the concept of privacy doesn’t exist

  • Seema Goswami
  • Updated: Jul 02, 2016 22:00 IST
Everyone’s watching: I have grown up in a culture where the concept of privacy doesn’t seem to exist. Where even the most personal matters are the subject of discussion. (Shutterstock)

So, there I was in an airport lounge, sitting quietly in one corner, minding my own business. My husband, who was travelling in a wheelchair, wanted some water so I went to the buffet counter to get it. Barely had I reached into the fridge, than a voice behind me said, “Excuse me.” I turned around, thinking it was a staff member offering assistance. But no, it was a complete stranger, smiling brightly at me. “Yes,” I asked.

“I just saw that your husband is in a wheelchair,” he said. “What is the problem?”

I suppose the easiest response would have been to explain that he was suffering from a bout of sciatica. But I was so appalled by the blatant disregard for my privacy (not to mention my husband’s) and the barefaced effrontery of asking about a stranger’s medical condition, that I had to pause while I got my temper under control.

So, I counted to ten and then asked in the most icy tone I could summon: “Are you a friend of his?”

Impervious to my annoyance, he responded cheerily, “No, no, I was just wondering what had happened to him.”

I could have made the obvious comeback: “How is that any business of yours?” But my manners got the better of me. “He is in pain,” I said tersely and moved away.

But he was not done. “Anything serious?”

That’s when my reserve of patience ran out. I turned my back to him and went back to my quiet corner, fuming all the while at the intrusiveness of strangers.

Thinking back on the encounter during the flight, I began to wonder why I had been quite so annoyed. After all, as an Indian, I have grown up in a culture where the concept of privacy doesn’t seem to exist. Where even the most personal matters are the subject of public discussion. And where intrusiveness is such a fact of life that most of us cease to even notice it after a while.

Growing up, as the youngest of three kids, with a brother and a sister who were more than a decade older than me, I lost count of the number of times I heard people joke about how I must have been an ‘accident’. After all, my parents had ‘one of each’ so the third one could only have arrived because of a failure of contraception. It was probably said good-naturedly but ever since I began to understand what it meant, it always came as a shock to hear that I had never been wanted in the first place.

More recently, I have seen much the same scenario unfold with a friend of mine. She has three daughters, all born within a year or two of one another. And every time she goes anywhere with all three of them – whether to a PTA meeting, a family function, a birthday party, or even on a routine trip to the dentist – she is sure to get one of the following three responses (and sometimes all three). “Three daughters? Oh, you must have been hoping for a son.” “Is the shop shut? Or will you try one last time for a boy?” “How lucky, girls are the best. But doesn’t your husband want a son too?”

I can only imagine how those three young girls feel when they hear these careless remarks thrown about within earshot. Do they feel worthless because, apparently, a family is never complete without a son? Do they wonder if their parents are disappointed in them because of their gender? Do they feel like failures for no fault of their own?

But somehow, everyone feels entitled to comment on other people’s personal choices, or even query their life decisions. Here is just a random sample of questions that you grow up being asked in India – not just by parents, family members, neighbours or friends; but by complete strangers in doctors’ waiting rooms, on the train, and yes, even in airline lounges.

* How come you are not married yet? Divorced? Oh, what happened?

* How many kids do you have? Just the one? He is five already? Isn’t it time you had the second one? You know, only children can grow up to be selfish and lonely.

* How long have you been married? No children? Any problems? You know, I can recommend a specialist. He helped my cousin conceive – not once, but twice!

And then, there are the questions that are asked so that you can be placed in the social order:

* Where did you go to school?

* Did you go to college in India or abroad?

* Where do you live? Do you live in a flat or a house? How much did you pay for it? Oh, your parents left it to you? How much do you think it is worth now?

* What car do you drive? Do you drive yourself or do you have a driver?

* Where did you go for your summer holidays? Where are you planning to go for Christmas/New Year?

The questions just pile on and on and on till the intrusiveness becomes such a part of your environment that you don’t even register it, let alone find it offensive.

But then comes a moment when a complete stranger walks up to you and asks you about your husband’s medical condition as if he has a perfect right to do so. And that’s when you begin to lay down boundaries in your own head. And promise yourself that you will safeguard them even at the cost of being seen as rude. Because, sometimes, offense is the best defence.

From HT Brunch, July 3, 2016

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