I knew the meanings of the words ‘personal’ and ‘space’ growing up, but didn’t quite know what it meant if you put those two words together. Personal space was a foreign concept in the middle class Kolkata, where I grew up. The other day Sahana asked me incredulously, “You didn’t have your own room? How did you manage?” She can’t even fathom how I managed to grow up without retreating to my own space once in a while. I grew up in a one bedroom apartment with a tiny living room, an eating area, a bathroom and a kitchen. I slept with my mother on the bed while my father slept on a pullout bed which was stowed away during daytime. Before exams when I had to pull an all-nighter, I studied in the tiny dining room so I didn’t disturb my parents, sleeping in the bedroom.
Thinking back, I did wish once in a while for my own room, but I knew that was just wishful thinking, a luxury which we couldn’t afford. Since I didn’t have a room of my own, I never missed it either. My situation was not unique, it is rare for children in middle class India to have a room of their own. We don’t grow up with the concept of personal space, and it is good in a way, since our congested nation can’t afford to provide much space for personal use anyway!
My children unwind after a busy day by going to their rooms, listening to their music or playing with their toys. Our way of unwinding was playing or reading in the same room with our parents, mainly mother, in companionable silence. I have so many happy memories of my mother and I sharing the same pillow, sitting next to each other reading our books. There were, of course ,no head phones, we all listened to the radio or tape recorder together, sometimes when they had enough, our parents yelled at us to turn it off. Did I feel smothered and crowded? I am sure I did at times, specially during adolescence, but it doesn’t stand out in my memory since that was the only way of life I knew. I had no problem standing close to another person in a crowded bus, holding on to the guard rail for dear life, our hands touching. I had no choice either, since we were packed like sardines on public buses during rush hour. At festival times, the markets were crowded with busy shoppers. I made my way by pushing and shoving, just like everybody else without giving it a second thought. As I said earlier, I had no idea of personal space so there was no question of respecting it.
When I came to United States in the mid-nineties, I heard the words ‘personal space’ for the first time. I saw people maintaining reasonable distance from each other even in crowded streets. Saying ‘excuse me’ after bumping into another human was something I had to learn. I liked this elbow room a lot, but at the same time missed the human connection that I felt back home. When I was ‘fresh off the boat’ I missed crowds, I roamed the streets of Baltimore, just to feel included in the mass of humanity. Sean and I had to compromise when it came to house hunting since I wanted a town house with a whole bunch of neighbors and neighborhood kids running around. Sean wanted to live in the middle of nowhere where he didn’t have to see his neighbor’s back deck.
I pooh poohed the words of caution by well-meaning friends when we decided to go to President Obama’s inauguration in D.C. with our four and nine-year old children. Sensible friends warned us against such foolhardiness “There will be thousands and thousands of people, are you guys crazy? It is madness!” What were they talking about? A woman from Kolkata is never scared of thousands and thousands of people, we deal with that number everyday just going back and forth from work. Bring it on! We went. My experience as a commuter in Kolkata’s public transport came in handy when I had to push Sean and the kids onto a CROWDED bus and yelled at the bus driver when he asked us to wait for the next bus. We had already waited for an hour and a half. I was waiting no more, and that was that. I was in my elements. Ryan vomited on the bus on our way to the metro, the driver gave the white of his eye, he was annoyed with me to begin with, but that is another story.
At first, when we moved to the suburbs I was miserable. I hated the lack of human voice, the noise of the crickets after dark. There were no street lights, no cars, most importantly no people walking in front of our yard. While Sean exclaimed happily about spotting a “beautiful fox” or a bunch of deer or cute bunny rabbits in our yard, I said “Oh, dear, get me out of the zoo!” When I freaked out after seeing a 3 feet long rat snake in our yard, Sean looked at me with something akin to pity in his eyes and asked “You never caught garden snakes and salamanders growing up?” No, I didn’t catch snakes and salamanders growing up, thank you very much. I grew up in a city called Kolkata and I am a completely city girl. I longed for the city lights, city noises, the constant excitement and hustle and bustle of city life. Specially when Sean traveled I felt so isolated in the ‘burbs’ by myself with two young children. But slowly, I started getting used to the solitude. In fact, I began to enjoy the quiet. I still love the city, but after the dealing with parking, people, noise, crowded roads when we head back home, see the green around me, I breathe deeply “Ah, peace!” Call it old age, if you will.
My husband tells me I am patriotic, to a fault. He has good reason since I asked him to get out of my country in a moment of nationalistic rage when he made an innocent comment about the river Ganges getting very polluted. I am not the same passionate young woman anymore. With age came wisdom (I hope) and with wisdom came the knowledge that if we don’t identify the problem we cannot find a solution. Now when I go back, I notice the complete disregard for personal space in Kolkata or any big city in India, among people and cars alike. I don’t think people realize it is a ‘problem’, it is simply the way of life there. I, too, was oblivious of it till I went to a different country and lived a different life. My suburban children, however, surprise me by taking it all in their stride. With the adaptability that only children have, Sahana and Ryan walk through the congested streets of Kolkata undaunted and chide me instead if I make any negative remarks about the cleanliness of the city. I will be truthful, when I go back I feel uncomfortable when I am in a crowd. I avoid public transport during rush hour, I avoid malls in the evenings and I really wish that the person who bumped my shoulder hard on his way to catch the bus would turn around and say “Oh, I am so sorry I bumped you!” BECAUSE THAT REALLY HURT!!!
I have changed, just not sure if it is for the better or worse. And I have learnt to enjoy my solitude to notice this.