Living in India, one of the key Western comforts that’s most difficult to attain – unless you’re very wealthy, or have committed to living a hermit’s life in the forest or mountains – is privacy. Whether it’s you want ten minutes, ten hours or ten days, your private peace is almost certain to be interrupted. Sharell, of Diary of a White Indian Housewife, has written about her constant stream of visitors here:
“I couldn’t relax. I felt like I had to be properly dressed and ready to receive whoever came a knocking at any time. I felt like I had no privacy at all. It was made worse because I come from a very small family, with no brothers and sisters, who live in the country. I’ve been used to having a lot of privacy and personal space.”
There are just so many people in India. Taking a bus ride through the roads of Kerala, one thing that’s impossible to ignore is the fact that houses and villages are only ever a maximum of about twenty metres apart, and that’s in the least populated areas. Most people live in such close proximity to others, be they parents, siblings, aunties, friends or neighbours, that the idea of privacy is to all intents and purposes unachievable. Privacy in middle-class India lasts little longer than a few minutes on the toilet; in slums and other poverty-stricken areas, even basic bodily functions are performed in the open, and you could be interrupted at any moment, for any reason.
My elderly neighbour across the street used to treat my home a bit like an interactive television. Not only could he sit on his front porch and watch for signs of movement; he could also pop over and ‘pick bananas’ for a while before buzzing the doorbell to see what I was up to. Over time, you do grow more accustomed to interruptions and your role in other people’s lives, the friendly neighbourhood saip/gora/firang who is always ready with a smile and a minute to talk, but sometimes it’s just so much easier and more palatable to stay inside for an entire day watching YouTube, browsing blogs and Facebooking my finds.
If you communicate with people in the right way, they might just see some of your side of things and leave you alone a little more than they used to. I’ve worked to achieve a degree of solitude, and I prize it highly. The main thing it’s taken is to be welcoming at the most trying times in order to be able to ask for quiet further on down the line. These days I try to remain cool when my solitude is disturbed, but throughout the minutes a neighbour or friend is at my door or in my living room, part of me is looking forward to the moment when the space will be mine, and only mine, once again. It’s a Western concept that I can’t shake: my home, rented or not, is mine and I should be able to have peace and privacy in it whenever I feel like it.
As always, however, the key is balance. All that YouTube and Facebook time can do funny things to your head. The colours of the real world – at least, the world outside your front door – start to lose their lustre after a while and, most dangerous of all, other people grow into beasts who not only take away your privacy but prevent you from enjoying it. You wake up in the morning and amongst all the other tasks you might have planned for the day, an irritating thorn worms its way in: who’s going to interrupt me today? So, the other thing that has taken work is keeping some balance through a lack of attachment to my privacy and what I do with it.
The result is a life in which I am alone the majority of the time, but am also regularly intruded upon. As I say, you get used to it to a degree. Part of the reason why it’s impossible to always feel frustrated is that often, your intruders are in fact invading your privacy out of compassion. Most of my Indian friends have a hard time understanding how I manage to live alone; from their point of view, it must surely be very lonely. They’re looking out for me, and while everyone’s motives can be different, generally my elderly neighbour or rickshaw driver friend would turn up out of the blue just to give me a little company for a while. It’s hard not to be touched when, upon my insistence to a friend that I’m fine and happy to be living alone, their face is a mixture of concern and understanding as they quietly say, “Okay…” and leave the topic alone – for now.
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