When your private space is actually a public space
For millions in urban India, it is the street, the marketplace, or the public transport that offers moments of privacyUpdated: Apr 23, 2020 17:43 IST
Last week, I called up Nagaraj. Until the lockdown came about, Nagaraj used to come regularly at 6 am and clean our car. Besides wanting to know how to transfer his month’s wages to him, I was keen to know how he was. Nagaraj told me that conditions were tough; getting food and other essentials was difficult, and there was no work. But that was still bearable, he said. His real misery was that he had to spend 24 hours a day, everyday, cooped up with the five other members of his family in one room. I could almost hear him cry, talking about it.
That’s when it struck me that while the lockdown is hard for everyone, the ones who are miserable, in a different way, are the urban poor. What’s new, you may ask? But just think about how precious it is for every individual to have a little private space, even if for a limited time.
For the urban upper-and middle-class, it’s not too bad. Most people today stay in a flat. Families are not too large either — a couple and one or two kids (though some are larger, with parents/in-laws/ relatives living together as well). But there is still some place in the flat to hide oneself for some time; the tiny balcony, the small entrance-way or even the storeroom. So, in some sense, they can sneak in a private moment. And then there is the building complex to stroll around in. There is some corner, some terrace, some stairwell, some scooter or car park, to find a quiet space.
In rural India, it’s even easier. Just step out to the field or orchard at the back, behind a large tree or on a quiet path.
But it’s the urban lower-middle-class and poor who face the maximum brunt of this aspect of the lockdown. For people such as Nagaraj, being stuck with five other people — sure, family members — in a single room the whole day and night is suffocating. Even when you step outside the slum, where do you go? There are people all around who know you, and who you feel are looking at you. After some time, everyone is irritating you, and you are irritating everyone.
Almost as bad are the conditions for young working men or women who stay in dormitories or paying guest accommodation, five or six in a room. Earlier, they would go for work for most of the day, hang out at a mall or shopping area, and come and spend just a little time in their rooms. Now they are stuck 24*7. And while it was fun initially to spend time with the roommates who you may not have really known, after a bit, you just want to get out.
Fortunately for these people, mobile smartphones give partial relief — the ability to drift off into a different virtual space. (mobile phones were originally named “mobile” because before they came on the scene, you were mobile and phone lines were fixed. Now you are “fixed”, under lockdown, and the phone makes you virtually mobile). But how long do you stare at a small screen, play games or watch movies while wondering if others are staring at you (while you’re not looking)?
For most of urban India, and that’s hundreds of millions of people, the only private place is a public place. It’s the busy street you walk down, anonymously; the crowded bus or train you sit or stand in, anonymously; the market place you meander through, anonymously; or the road you navigate your motorbike on, anonymously. And that’s pretty much it. What makes it private is not that there are no people, but that there is no one who knows you. Just that small vital space for that precious time where you can be to yourself, by yourself, for yourself — while everyone around you just does whatever they want and are part of the blurred background.
As the lockdown continues and could extend again, either continuously or intermittently, society needs to find ways to help people find privacy. Lockdown systems have to take this into account to reduce the misery, and not just the economic plight, of people most affected. Technology can help, such as by automatically permitting to move around on a rotational basis, while being safe so that social distancing is maintained. That way, people can find a quiet space for a short time, at least.
In the long-term, we need to think even more about our public places in urban areas, and how we can make them more hygienic, more comfortable, and more inspiring, recognising that for most urban Indians, it’s not really a public place, it’s your most private place.
The views expressed are personal