When your private space is actually a public space – analysis
Last week, I called Nagaraj. Until the closing occurred, Nagaraj used to come regularly at 6 am and clean our car. In addition to wanting to know how to transfer his month’s salary to him, he was eager to know how he was doing. Nagaraj told me that the conditions were difficult; 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, every day, locked up with the other five members of his family in one room. I could almost hear him crying, talking about it.
It was then that I realized that while closing is difficult for everyone, those who are miserable, in a different way, are the urban poor. What’s new, you may ask? But just think how valuable it is for each individual to have a small private space, even for a limited time.
For the urban upper and middle class, it is not that bad. Most people today stay in one flat. Families are not too big either: a couple and one or two children (although some are older, and parents / in-laws / relatives also live together). But there is still a place on the floor to hide for some time; the small balcony, the small entrance or even the warehouse. So, in a sense, they can sneak into a private moment. And then there is the complex of buildings to walk around. There is a corner, a terrace, a stairwell, a scooter or a parking lot, to find a quiet space.
In rural India, it is even easier. Just go out to the field or orchard in the back, behind a large tree, or on a quiet path.
But it is the lower middle class urbanites and the poor who face the brunt of this aspect of the blockade. For people like Nagaraj, being stuck with five other people, of course, family members, in a single room all day and night is stifling. Even when you leave the poor neighborhood, where are you going? There are people around you who know you and feel that they are looking at you. After a while, everyone is irritating you, and you are irritating everyone.
Almost as bad are the conditions for working young men or women who stay in dormitories or pay for guest accommodation, five or six in one room. Previously, they would go to work most of the day, hang out in a mall or shopping area, and come to spend a little time in their rooms. Now they’re trapped 24 * 7. And while it was fun initially spending time with roommates you may not have known, after a while, you just want to go out.
Fortunately for these people, mobile smartphones provide partial relief: the ability to drift into a different virtual space. (Mobile phones were originally called “mobile” because before they appeared on the scene, you were mobile and the phone lines were fixed. You are now “fixed,” under lockdown, and the phone makes you virtually mobile.) But how long do you watch a small screen, play games, or watch movies while wondering if others are watching you (while you’re not watching)?
For most of urban India, and that’s hundreds of millions of people, the only private place is a public place. It is the busy street you walk on, anonymously; the crowded bus or train where you sit or stand anonymously; the market you roam in, anonymously; or the path by which you navigate your motorcycle, anonymously. And that’s it. What makes it private is not that there are no people, but that there is no one who knows you. Only that small vital space for that precious time where you can be with yourself, alone, for yourself, while everyone around you only does what they want and is part of the blurred background.
As the blockade continues and could be extended again, either continuously or intermittently, society needs to find ways to help people find privacy. Blocking systems must take this into account to reduce the misery, and not just the difficult economic situation, of the people most affected. Technology can help, for example, by allowing it to move automatically on a rotational basis, while also being safe to maintain social distance. 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, comfortable and inspiring, recognizing that for most urban Indians, it is not really a public place, it is your place. more private.
Prakash Nedungadi is Group Leader: Consumer Insight and Brand Development at Aditya Birla Group
The opinions expressed are personal.