Personal space — during a pandemic — is an acquired taste. For a country that’s used to rib-cracking jhappis, spatial accommodation is the golden ploy that forgives most violations. The collective snarl of crowds is our everyday grind.
From jammed Indian streets to public modes of transportation, we’ve learnt to deal. But how close is too close — in elevators, offices, metros, buses, and streets?
‘Adjust kar lo’, we’ve been pleaded with.
But this time, the ‘bura na maano’ land of cheek-by-jowl living is in quite a spot. Re-adjustment. We've gotta stay away from each other. Self over self-indulgence. There is a health crisis and we can’t be trusted around each other anymore.
So, given the circumstances, how do you kill two birds with one stone? How do you get a billion Indians to not only stay safe, but also get used to the idea of not invading the no-fly zone around one’s body?
You scare the daylights out of them with talk of a contagious virus that is out to get them. Look up, the spirits of holy mayhem just shuddered from above!
The novel coronavirus is not a six-foot ogre brandishing a baton in hand that you can spot from a distance and run for cover. It is your everyday air, with a side of fatalism. Smooth, sly, smirky.
So how do we measure, maintain, and acclimate to ‘personal space’ — arguably a 75 centimetre distance around one’s body?
Our prime minister loves to shake hands for one full microwave minute and our movies have superstars who love to inch as close to our leading ladies as possible.
Remember DDLJ’s train scene where Kajol wants Shah Rukh to stay away? So much so that her pupils dilate to the size of pan pizzas, but Shah Rukh decides to be as perceptive as a piece of chair? In Jab We Met, Kareena Kapoor's character, Geet, touted as inexhaustible Gatorade for self-esteem, might be an inspiration for many, but she is also a ticking bomb for personal space violations — ready to always dive into your business — physically and emotionally.
Fed by pop culture tropes and daily transgressions of personal space, Indians, usually, fly way past all buffer zones, and our show-and-tell diet of ‘affections’ boasts of a regular hug or a thump on the back.
No hug, no tribe. No thump, no squad. Not even a handshake? You ain't one of us.
All of a sudden, we are riddled with acute realisations of our transgressive moments, making a note to backpedal each time we hover too close to a person. This time, we are, miraculously, respecting personal space, if only out of sheer self-preservation.
In 2017, actor Zaira Wasim spoke about a gentleman, seated right behind her in an airplane, who kept moving his foot up and down her neck and back while she was “half-asleep”.
In 2016, actor Tina Dutta had called out another gentleman, seated behind her in the aircraft, for touching her inappropriately. Recently, a woman in China reportedly scared away a would-be sex offender by pretending to cough. Ahem.
In Italy, a gentleman was seen walking around wearing a huge disk to mark his personal space so people keep away. In Feb 2020, another gentleman in a metro had to squirt ketchup around him in a train so people around wouldn't invade his space. Of course, these two examples pushed the envelope a bit, but the times, they have suddenly sprung upon us a weird situation — a health crises that dictates social mores. Maybe to set a precedent for the future, Corona or no Corona?
What does the gospel say? A one-metre distance to be maintained at all times from each other. Don't stand too close to a person at any point of time. Don't sneeze or cough without your mouth covered. It is almost as if we want to teach ourselves what being cognisant of ‘personal space’ sounds like.
In an unforeseen plot twist, Indians are being asked to fly solo. Even in public.
So for those of us stepping out for work, social gatherings... this is perhaps a learning curve. Pandemic or not, the one-metre distance will perhaps do us some good even after we've ridden out this storm. Unless of course there is explicit cues from those around you that they'd want you closer. Then yep, go live your Closeup ad dreams.