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How close is too close?

Whether it is the British public's intrusive fascination with the lives of royalty or the Indian youth's campaign to 'reclaim public spaces' post the Dec 16 gangrape, perceptions of the public and the private are being examined globally. Shalini Singh writes.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2013 01:03 IST

December 22 2012 saw a gigantic swell of Indians swarming the roads of Rajpath, reaching Rashtrapati Bhavan. "These events led to a new kind of politics," says Ravi Sundaram, senior fellow at Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "The Rajpath march was symbolic: first 'self-organised crowd anxiety'," he says. While we grapple with a new "claim-making" in public space, this tipping point also leads to introspection on larger ideas in changing cultural, social and political contexts.

As cities like Delhi, Mumbai become more consumption oriented, space equations start changing, says Yasmeen Arif, sociology professor at Delhi School of Economics. Public space as a classic model is an interaction of home and family, site of demonstrations, rallies etc. Private space is home and neighbourhood... "Across India, cleanliness has been an issue of public space (keep the home clean, throw the garbage out) but with the recent issue of safety, we're looking at public space differently now - asserting our rights over the city," Sundaram says. "Boundaries between public and private are getting shifted in Indian cities," says anthropologist Arjun Appadurai.

Starting from the 1990s, there was a tendency of privatisation of space. "With safety and transport issues coming up, people began abandoning public transport and retreating into a shell," says Sundaram. Today the concept of gated communities has caught on, when traditionally even rooms were not demarcated within the Indian home.

For those who can afford, the private space is richer than the public space, says writer-commentator Gurcharan Das. "We are not a culture of natural parks and public squares. Indians meet at their homes," he says. When the Delhi Metro came up, it changed the notion of public space. People treated it with respect, unlike the DTC buses. How space is organised, says Das, depends on how people are. "The same Indian doesn't urinate on walls or jump signals when he crosses the airport immigration line. The more governance improves, people tend to care more too."

Urban mobility - moving from small town to large cities - has seen a first generation of affluent young people who are used to smaller confines, responding from that space, explains Delhi-based psycho-therapist Jasmeet Kaur. Earlier children couldn't walk into adult spaces, says Radhika Chopra, sociology professor at Delhi University. "The drawing room - public space within the home - was out of bounds to children and servants. But now with small family units in one domestic space each 'generation' has their space. A married couple now often have separate loos - a very modern perception of private highly individual space within a family home."

Online spaces are adding to the debate on private versus public. Though the current Internet penetration rate is less than 10% in India, it's rapidly growing. These are public and private at the same time. "The individual is at the heart of a network and activates collective interaction in her or his private time within the otherwise shared space of the family home," says Chopra.

At our core, says Kaur, are two things. One is habit, the other is relational. The people of a country of 1.2 billion are used to being around others. "We're deeply relational at an emotional and physical level but private, repressed even, when it comes to sexuality. Social networking has ripped apart that personal space, leaving many young people confused."

The western notion of the individual is far greater than the collective societies of the east, says Das. With the far east countries on one extreme, India stands in-between. "While our society matters to us - joint family, village, caste - we aren't as collective as the far east," he says. American behavioural norms relating to a family are highly individualistic unlike Indian which are hierarchical and patriarchal says Padma Desai, director, Center for Transition Economies, Department of Economics, Columbia University. "From the age of 18, children are legally adults, make their choices, private and professional, and take their consequences." Note that behavioural norms relating to community are governed by laws she adds, which unlike in India, are clearly specified and generally strictly implemented. "At the same time, Americans take enormous interests in community welfare, resulting in philanthropic activities and ameliorates the extreme functional environment of the American workplace," she explains.

A look at some of the parameters that measure privacy - both in public and private spaces - for urban Indians today.

Jobs and university are common reasons for young urban Indians living away from home today. (Urban literacy rate was 85% in 2011, up from 79.9% in 2001, while households with no married couples went up from 11.1% to 11.6% according to the latest Census.) "They are becoming tenants or home-owners at a younger age. So their claim over their space is more articulate. But the root of the assertion is basic - you pay for it it's yours," says Chopra. The increasing emphasis on education, says Arif has resulted in more kids being given a room of their own as opposed to a corner of house or dining table where the kids sat to study. "Alongside that there are consumer goods to build up the private space - special decor/furniture for kids - for a particular class of people," she adds.

Public discourse
Are Indians who were always argumentative, yet shied away from 'hurting sentiments', becoming more combative? Along with 24-hour news TV which calls for heated, sharp exchanges between not just political figures but also writers and thinkers have been on the rise, leading to a clash of views all in the public domain. Openness and transparency is a good thing as long as decency is maintained, feels Das. "Censorship is a no-no, but self-restraint is important." Technology has changed how people interact. Verbal exchanges are one thing, and hiding behind devices - non-face-to-face interaction - helps some vent/express says Arif. "If a figure like Shashi Tharoor fights on Twitter, it creates a 'momentary interest'. It holds attention and gives you a certain expectation from that provocation. Technology allows it to spread widely and the person in question becomes an icon of combativeness."

Urban design
Flats are overtaking houses in cities. There are estimated to be nearly 1500 already constructed high-rises in NCR. Some homes are designed - especially in condominium complexes - for minimal interaction between neighbours. KT Ravindran, head of urban design at School of Planning and Architecture, says higher the income, lesser the interaction. "Neighbourliness is a middle-class concept, upper classes don't need to mix. The sense of community is bigger in lower classes who need mutual support." When people lived in houses there was always someone at home. College and office have changed the bulwark of caste system 'purity and pollution' while malls are the new leisure spaces today. "There's an openness about men-women relationships, but public spaces lack support and can also be oppressive," explains Arif. Design needs to re-imagine public space says Sundaram. "In India there are no public debates on design compared to other countries."

A recent Act that brought the public and state 'closer' is The Right to Information Act 2005, where a citizen may request information from a public authority within 30 days. Can rights undermine trust? "We need to be mindful of the dignity of an institution not just its efficiency," says sociologist Andre Beteille. How we treat public figures is also changing. The Indian public increasingly challenging statements by public figures reflects our maturing democracy says lawyer Nandita Saikia. While the right to privacy is recognised by our laws, the right to personal information of public figures have recently come under debate, first with Congress president Sonia Gandhi's health, and later, with Robert Vadra, when revelations of his transactions with DLF sparked a debate on rights as a 'private citizen' and 'politically exposed person'.

Sexuality is in a churn in Indian society today. "The Indian woman is coming into her own, asserting herself... society must learn that we all have boundaries and respect it," says Das. In the earlier times, a courtesan was a figure of respect, desired for her body and mind. "We had a healthier attitude to sexuality earlier and regressed. We're in transition now with some of the younger urban lot more healthy and liberated," he says. However, issues like incest are still un-discussed says Appadurai. The nature of shift in the cities is two-fold. One, because of aspiration and necessity, women are more visible. Two, women in India still represent the fundamental code for what is or 'ought to be' private. "The contradiction is that they are told 'go out and earn but be modest'. So women are out in the public space but viewed in a private bubble." Reflections post the December gangrape point to the notion that the Indian society doesn't see its women as individuals. With women gaining equal voice in decision-making, men are fighting this change, says Kaur. "New rules are to be put into place. It's a bewildering space for men who are feeling a loss of the familiar. The fear gets built up, leads to impotency in some, violence in others as was seen in the gangrape case."

Online/social media
A report based on a survey done between 2011-2012 on 10,000+ people in different parts of India titled Privacy in India: Attitudes and Awareness, says, recent developments, privacy bill, UID project, signify a need for privacy awareness in Indian masses. While Internet penetration is at about 7.1%, it's rising exponentially. India is a collectivist society with lower Individualism Index and higher Power Distance Index compared to the US... [...] 'individuals in collectivist societies have more trust and faith in other people than individuals in individualist societies.' Ponnurangam K, assistant professor, Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, who led the survey, says perception of privacy online is changing from 'privacy unaware' to 'privacy aware' in India. "Nearly one-third surveyed said setting privacy preferences doesn't mean anything - companies can misuse information. Even reading privacy policies is higher in India than in the west."

An important feature of Indian life is the proliferation of religiosity says Beteille. But in modern India religion is politicised. "Religion is dangerous ground in a country like India where it's getting difficult to talk about religion as a private affair," says Arif. "It's becoming less about spirituality and more about identity and conflict. Ayodhya did something to that space, as did the Sikh riots and Islam post 9/11 where religious identity was sharply politicised." Activist-writer Asghar Ali Engineer says that religion with its emotive potential is leading to polarisation because our polity has come to be based on religious/caste identities. In the west, the main point of contention was racial identity. "When Europeans migrated to the US, they believed in the 'melting pot' identity. Post the World Wars, Africans and Asians also went to the US, the model of identity changed to the 'mosaic model'. In India, the differences come from regions and religions, not race."

Media projections
UK novelist Hilary Mantel's recent piece looks at how royalty figures in the west are almost brutally scrutinised. In India, the closest 'royalty' are film stars like the Bachchans or political figures like the Gandhis. Publicity rights concerning celebrities are considered antithesis to the freedom of speech in common law countries like UK, while in India, neither adequate case laws nor statute governing celebrity rights per se exist currently, but despite this the paparazzi culture never quite took off. The reason, says Abhinandan Sekhri of a media critique website, is our reverential attitude to public figures "We either acknowledge our public figures as out of our league or start fighting with them, the way Arnab Goswami does." In France, for example, the irreverential approach comes from treating the figure as an equal. "We lack the questioning spirit and treat people in power like gods," says Sekhri.

According to a 2011 Assocham report, by 2030, the urban population is expected to grow to 40% of India's population, up from about 30% in 2011, and it's estimated that India's mega cities will go up from a mere 3 now to over 13. With urbanisation comes the demand for housing which is also altering the nostalgic view of neighbourly relations especially with the coming of gated communities. "In the newer condos in Noida and Gurgaon, which have non-organic or 'produced neighbourhoods', rarely do the occupants - mostly young professionals - know anyone outside their immediate building," says Arif. Time is a precious commodity because there are more things - both essential and recreational - to do. With an educated middle class, gender spaces also change, says Beteille. "Earlier when a neighbour dropped in, the housewife would send out tea. Today, she mingles." A peculiarity of contemporary India, he points out, is the take-over of community space. "In the colonies, people block lanes and claim space even if temporarily, for a wedding. No one complains about it even though it's illegal. Innovative Indians will find a way through 'jugaad'. If feathers are ruffled, they'll say join the celebration." Spontaneous encounters are dying, says Kaur. "In several crime reports today, people say we had no idea what was going inside a house right next to theirs," she says. Bhavna Sharma, 26, photographer, who moved to Delhi from a town in north Rajasthan because of a lack of "English-speaking colleges" says her living here is "like a refugee life" in some ways. Back home, she shared a room with her grandmother in a spacious house. "It's unthinkable to afford a luxurious place like that in Delhi," she says.