I was at a Dutch friend’s house to celebrate his new job. During one of the many conversations, he told me he happened to live with an Indian guy at one point who used to, sometimes, just walk in without knocking. He then enquired, “Do Indians not have the concept of privacy?”. I was quick to answer that we do, and that socially, we are entrenched in being polite towards others and firm about following manners. Later, however, I wondered, do we really have the concept of privacy in our society? Or is it merely a recent, Westernised notion that we now think we have always had?
Curious, I set about and found that there is no direct translation for the word ‘privacy’ in Sanskrit or Tamil, the roots of all Indian languages. The closest terms were ‘secrecy’ and ‘intimacy’, which are as similar to privacy as freedom is to free. Could it be possible that we, as a society, have never had the need to be private, apart from the nobility who could afford it in terms of time and space?
Growing up in Indian society, where there is an abundance of populace and shortage of space, it is quite common to not have private spaces to oneself. Concepts such as “my room” are difficult to realise when there are several siblings and a joint family, all living under the same roof. Most commonly, one may find “a room for the children” which siblings – and sometimes, cousins – are expected to share.
A few that grow up in a nuclear family might have the privilege of having a room to themselves, especially in cities where apartments are designed with such spaces in mind. Yet, even in such cases, the notion that a parent or a relative, or any person older than you, must knock or ask permission to enter has been inconceivable, at least until recently. This stems from the conventional belief that you as a person have no right to that space – sure, you can stay in it and use it, but it isn’t yours. As adults, we enjoy comparably more freedoms, which I suspect comes from financial independence. But when it comes to children, I argue that our society treats them largely as inferior beings by treading consistently on their privacy.
“This is my house, and when living in it, you will follow my rules” – is a favourite phrase of Indian fathers, especially used to make you realise that you, basically, are living at their whim and fancy, and that by virtue of it being his house, he has every right to walk into any space, any time he pleases. Mothers are usually seen as being more empathetic, but the entirety of Indian social strata works on a different set of principles. Chief among that is the concept of sanskaar – the closest English equivalent of which is sacrament, or tradition, or rite, or duty. This single concept gives every elder, a right over you – by virtue of their greater age and experience, and every parent, a right over your life – by your obligation and duty to serve them. This itself serves as an anti-thesis towards the Western notion of privacy which entitles you to your own space and to seclusion in it.
In the digital age, as we live bent at the neck into our smartphones, parents demand an intrusive right to every message and call we send and receive. Outside the digital space, they demand to vet our friends by virtue of their parents’ occupation, caste, economic status, social reputation, and personal bias. Of course, this is not exclusive to Indian society, and is very much an essence of society in general. However, what sets the Indian strata apart from other cultures is the extent to which we shield this behaviour under the expansive umbrella of sanskaar. This is different from other similar cultures in which social structures are constructed based on religious grounds. In India, society thrives on the belief of a common religious ground which, in reality, is fragmented by countless local customs, norms and traditions that share similarities in various degrees. Therefore, the extent to which we weaponise sanskaar to invade an individual’s privacy varies as well.
In large parts of India, the girl child is still restricted in terms of who she meets, what she does, and at what time she returns home. The overbearing protectiveness of parents is as focused on the notion of social respect and standing as on concern for the girl’s safety and wellbeing. Within these boundaries, searching for evidence of wrong-doing goes hand in hand with the gossip regarding chakkars – myths about affairs between young men and women. While women are routinely stereotyped as chief gossip mongers who spend afternoons concocting as much spice into their gossip as in their kitchens, men are as guilty (if not more) of sharing and discussing these findings on the steps of shops and homes in the evenings.
While we make laws about privacy and while the Supreme Court dictates that privacy is, in fact, a fundamental right, I question the extent to which we believe and enact this in our daily life.
Even amongst friends, we believe we have a right over them as we demand for information without considering if they do want to share the information with us or not. This has been explained to me as a difference between Eastern and Western cultures – in terms of norms and philosophies – and that it has its advantages, the primary being that we thrive as a society comprised of large numbers precisely because we exchange more information.
As a sociological theory this is fine, but in practice, when it is combined with an inherent bias based on gender, age, caste, creed and the belief that acting on these biases is a part of sanskaar, it gives rise to a society where the individual is lost in the sheer largeness of the society.
Privacy is a larger, more distant dream, much farther apart and much less necessary than those of food, water, home, sanitation, health, education and infrastructure. But it is an important part of enriching individuals, by providing them with freedom and responsibility, and enabling them to think for themselves by letting them define their own safe space. It is easy to think one is not affected by this – maybe because in one way or another, we may be privacy-conscious, or simply because we justify what we do and reject that which is not familiar. A quote from the Bhagwad Gita states, roughly, “The immature think that knowledge and action are different, but the wise see them as the same.” Hence, it is our actions towards others that determine what we are.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.