Sleeper class aboard a two-day train in India costs about $11, and you get what you pay for. The bunks are three-tiered, no sheets, sticky seats. You see the odd mouse running across the floor. At night you have to step over bodies lying along the walkway as you hunt for a power outlet. You’re forced to get assertive when you return to your bunk and find an imposter lying there in the darkness.
But what really makes me uncomfortable aboard Indian trains is the lack of personal space.
On a short trip to a suburb north of Mumbai back in April, I grabbed a window seat in what would become a ridiculously packed carriage. The benches were meant to hold three people max, but there were at least four asses squeezed into each. A big burly dude sat down next to me, leaned back, lifted his arms, and set them to rest along the bench back. So, essentially, he had his left arm around my shoulders, romantic-cinema-style. He seemed to think nothing of this whole arrangement, while I sat there paralyzed, wondering if I’d soon have to phone home and tell my parents to ready a dowry.
On the two-day ghetto train from Kochi to Delhi, I was sat reading a book when the chap across from me decided to rest his bare foot on my seat, right between my legs, about an inch from my crotch. Again, not a bother on him, while I squirmed internally and wondered if I was the only one who thought this inappropriate.
As it turned out, I was. The idea of personal space is much different in India. Or, more accurately, the idea of personal space doesn’t exist here at all. You see men walking down the street holding hands, sometimes swinging linked pinkies in a proud demonstration of friendship.
A couple of weeks ago I took a tour to go visit some waterfalls in Kerala. A bunch of young lads befriended me on the short trek to the big falls. They’d been drinking, and one guy in particular was pretty wasted. Having lost his last ounce of self-consciousness, he tried repeatedly to take hold of my hand as we walked down the hill. It was awkward to say the least, but only from my point of view.
You’ll often see men in India doing what I can only describe as snuggling with each other. Heads resting in laps, arms linking legs, backs leaning against chests. It strikes me as especially strange given how homophobic and sexually repressed this country is. It’s not uncommon to see a group of men getting very touchy-feely with each other, then stopping to stare with silent mouths agape when a bunch of young ladies walk past. I’ve yet to see public displays of affection between married couples that rival those between guy friends.
Read a book or send a text message in public and before long you’re likely to notice someone looking indiscreetly over your shoulder. Step up to an ATM and you’ll find whoever’s next in line waiting alongside you, staring innocently at the keypad, wondering why you’re throwing them such a strange glance. Look up from your book on the train and you’ll meet a pair of eyes glued to you, eyes that don’t blink away just because you’ve caught them staring.
What amazes me most about all this though is that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not like our concept of personal space in the Western World is superior. It’s just different. I imagine if I’d grown up in India and went traveling to Ireland that I’d find those strange white people very cold and unaffectionate, with their hands kept to themselves and their heads unwiggling.