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Guest column: Distancing? Perish the Thought!


Distancing? Perish the Thought

Now here’s the thing: distancing is not only an alien concept to us Indians, it also goes against our grain.

Migrants who arrived from Maharashtra by a special train follow social distancing after deboarding at Charbagh railway station during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown in Lucknow. (Photo | PTI)

Now here’s the thing: distancing is not only an alien concept to us Indians, it also goes against our grain.

The moot point here is whether we have any kind of distancing, physical, social or emotional, in our DNA, something we can pull out and put to use when we need it most. As we do, now.

Take physical distancing. I’m not even going to touch upon the Million Migrants March here. Long before Covid became a thing, I had grown weary of the endless jostling and shoving that is part of everyday life in our country.

Nothing brings it home as sharply as a brief sojourn away from India, in places with a definitive sense of private space, where even in orderly queues, people kept an arm’s length away from the next person. This I have seen virtually everywhere, in tourist hotspots and beside quiet waters, from Dubrovnik to Windermere, from Austin to Thimphu, from Izmir to Chartres. Not in Bangkok, not in Beijing, but that’s altogether another story.

Nowhere does the ‘me-first’ philosophy take root and flourish more than at store counters in India where hands thrust goods into the store staff’s face and peremptory shouts of ‘Bill this’ (nary a please, of course), ‘Here’ and ‘I want this’ fill the air.


In parks, people walk abreast, sometimes linking arms. In buses, everybody inhales the scent of the other whether they want to or not. It’s only partly a joke when contests are held to see how many people can fit into a family car, and seventeen humans of varying sizes emerge.

We fail at social distancing too. How many times have we seen people literally shoving their faces into a near-stranger’s face, freely poking the other in the arm, the stomach, the chest, while expounding on something the speaker is certain is fascinating the hapless listener?

There are people seated at restaurant tables who nonchalantly reach out, fork some of the next person’s food, and take a bite of it. We tell somebody that this is a wine of a great vintage, automatically proffering our wineglass for them to have a taste. Our air-kisses involve an actual fleeting touch of cheek.

Then there’s emotional distancing. There is no restraint in the things we say and feel we can get away with. When we love, we love wholeheartedly, give of our all, soar high, fall low. When we hate, we go to town with that hate, spreading it about quite like a virus.

No restraints

We meet strangers and seek to know if they are married, if they have children, if they live in rented accommodation or their own house. When someone says they are childless, we immediately offer up nuskas, be it kashayas to increase fertility or godmen to meet for the same end.

People are not created to be socially distant but for love and closeness, says a Harvard professor. This holds true for Indians as a people. At base, everything is deeply personal to us, be it physical, social or emotional.

Which then begs the question: what on earth will we do in the coming months, when distancing is the need of the hour? It is at this point that my imagination fails me.

(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])

Links to my other guest columns:
closerthanthisemotional distancingFeatureguest columnnot feasiblephysical distancingSheila Kumarsocial distancingSunday ExpressTNIE

Sheila Kumar • May 10, 2020

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