Personal Space

Space and Time are categories of experience in general for most in western philosophy—they are categories that help us negotiate and organize the experience of the world—we sense the world of objects, things, people, and sensations of color and sound in terms of these two given parameters. We experience in terms of here and now, there and then. It is not easy for our rational mind to imagine a world without time or space.

However, it might not be a surprising fact that each one of us experiences these two categories in different ways—it is often a matter of individual sensibility and sensitivity. It is not unusual for us to feel the inordinate length of each second while waiting eagerly for someone or something; neither is it unusual for most of us to sense the quicker passage of time when we are extremely preoccupied with something. Time and space are certainly subjective categories. However, there is certainly a physical plane where we experience space in time; there’ s no denying that. We live in a concretely recognizable world of objective realities that appear so naturally to us to exist in the same world of our space and time. I heard the other day some celebrity on the television speaking about the virtues of contact lenses. She waxed eloquent about the sudden transformation in her world when she really started seeing after she had her contacts on!

I could suddenly see that there were real birds sitting on real tree branches covered with real feathers! I had never seen those at all! 

The excitement of corrected vision was a deeper sense of the real space.

Some people can see better than others—some can see more distant objects more clearly than others, too. The experience of depth vision can also vary from person to person. However, a sense of space has something personal and intimate about it, too. We may not realize this often in terms of the Newtonian or the Einsteinian categories, but we do sense it somehow within ourselves.

You are sitting in your living room in a dark winter evening alone reading. Suddenly, you hear some strange noise outside—it sounds so eerie that you are shaken. The room is sufficiently well-lit and somewhat spacious. There is no sense of being cramped at all. The nearest window is, let us say, easily ten feet away. And then you see a face at this window—you are not exactly sure about its structures–it just appears and vanishes. And then all of a sudden, the spatial distance between you and the window seems to collapse and you feel the touch of sheer fright. Deep within, you may know that this is irrational, but then the collapse of space is a felt experience too. Perhaps this is a psychological sensation, or merely an emotional one—call it whatever, the felt experience of spatial disorder is what matters here. Our sense of space is not always too real—there are lurking surreal dimensions below what appears to be normal.

Similar is the case with personal space. It varies between persons and individuals. Perhaps this is something that needs to account for the growth and development of the idea or the notion of the individual identity in human history. In primitive communities, the sense of personal space is perhaps less articulated and less defined. In the modern world, individuals apparently need a lot of personal space. For an American, for instance, from the state of Nevada, the experience of massive crowded railway platforms in the big cities of Mumbai or Calcutta in India would be a drastic one. Traveling in public transports during the evening rush hours would certainly be the most excruciating one for the Nevadan so used to rolling mountains and open deserts and comfortable travel in cars. Being caught in a crowd, one not only loses one’s cherished personal space, but also one’s identity with it. Crowds have a tendency to bully the individual to feel so lost and without free will—there is a mass psychology that pulls individuals into its very vortex, and they lose their selves completely. It can sometimes be akin to a sort of religious experience without the sense of the holy. In recalling many of my own experiences of traveling in amazingly crowded public transports in India, I still feel the sense of being absorbed in to a larger sphere that’s not my small self! Well, it’s fine as long as it is something that lasts only for a short time—soon enough you could regain your own intimate vastness of being. I wouldn’t live for a long time in such crowded spaces any day. The pressure would be too much to bear.

There are several levels of personal space, of course—the WC in the western world is a walled in closet that affords the individual the comforts of a closed personal space for his/her private things. While here in America, I have often asked for directions to reach the useful facilities of private space, while in restaurants and bus or railway stations, and every time have enjoyed the privacy of the clean and neat and tidy, sophisticated space of the walled closets. Every time I ask for such things, I am reminded of my friend from Chandigaard who used to use the phrase frequently while we were together for a couple of months in the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla. He was a refined person, so well mannered and cultured. He would often ask for the use of the facilities when he wanted the use of toilets!

On my return to India from the US, I was stranded for a long time in Bangalore International Airport, in south India, for want of a connecting flight to my hometown. In the wee hours of the morning, I was shocked to come to realize the fact that I was actually back in India! I who often spoke so lovingly and romantically of my own India while in the USA was actually shocked to realize that I was actually back in my beloved India where people and dogs slept side by side and pissed and shat side by side! Where dogs and pigs and cows all slurped down newly-laid night soil! Where garbage boxes over-spilled onto the main roads and where soiled plastic covers and torn newspapers floated around in the night breeze so freely! What has happened to my idea of personal space? Where is the need and necessity for personal space at all? Where is the comfort of a well-kept and tidy personal space where one breathes freely and exhales equally freely? Here where every one pushed and elbowed each and everyone’s way anywhere and everywhere! I recalled with sudden disquiet how I stood respectfully and religiously almost ten feet away from each and every one at every counter in the world of the West! Maybe it was slightly less than that! Nevertheless it was a respectable distance from each and every one. There was no pushing—no stinking shoulders or wretched dirty collars to withdraw from! There was always respectable distance from each person—a tidy personal space to breathe and to be! What had happened to all that, once in India? Is it that we have so many people who inhabit this space? Is it that we live in a different culture? What is it? Where have we gone wrong?

Personal space is a sort of birthright for those who sense it that way. There are some people who often sidle so close to us when we speak with them (while we withdraw when they come too close and discomfort us) and of course there are others who slip back and backwards every time we inch close and closer to them! Some do not just understand the idea of personal space at all. Personal space is a concept that is understood by just a few.

The individual as opposed to the collective is perhaps a creation or discovery of the West. In the East, there is less of the individual but more of the collective and the social.
Whatever it is, there are separate notions of space and time in the East and the West. One cannot generalize, though! The short stretch of beach on the eastern sea face that forms our beach at Kalapet near our University is a wonderful place to be on early mornings when the sun slowly moves up from beyond the blue sea. The sand slowly crumbles and curls around your feet as you move about—the touch of water ushers in a certain tingling warmth into your blood stream. The Bay of Bengal is so lovely here. The only snag is that the fisherfolk use this as their favourite backyard, too, in order to answer the calls of nature before the sun comes up onto the bright skies. The place is thus riddled with mounds of night soil, and the scurrying crabs and the withdrawing tides bring these mounds more and more to the surface. Your walk could thus be like walking on mined territory! Disgusting—that’s the first word that probably comes to your mind, if you have not already come out with more substantial vocabulary on your own. If you are too early on this beach, you are certain to be shocked at the number of shadowy forms that slowly rise from the crouching positions, shyly and surreptitiously—men, women, and children! What has happened to your notions of personal space and walled enclosures for performing that most private of activities? Indians are famed to perform these in the most public of spaces—especially in the south! From many years ago, I still recall with disgust and loathing how pigs and hogs used to hover around while kids and young women unashamedly went around taking care of their personal toilets in the many villages of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. So much for biological and ecological coexistence!

Recently, I had occasion to wander around in the early hours of the dawn on the beach in Kalapet along with a friend and scholar from overseas. Needless to say, it was with the utmost sense of shame and repugnance that I walked the beach–albeit excited at the rising sun and blue sky and cerulean sea. Strangely enough, my friend did not seem to take any note of the filth all around, or if he did, he did not show any signs of having been affected by all that. He was busy taking photographs. Finally, I could not refrain from apologizing for the appalling state of our beach. My friend, who was an ecologist and a scholar of international renown, then went into a lecture on human interaction with nature, and we were carried away in a debate on nature and the human nature. The major reason why he along with many other equally involved scholars and academics were there in our midst then was because I had called for an international conference on Nature and Human Nature. For three days, we discussed and debated about the fate of our species and our planet, and we also discussed the need and necessity for personal and private space and the significance and meaning of the individual and society. Then on the final day, when the valedictory session was under way, my friend and academic from Taiwan who had most significantly remained silent for the most through out the conference suddenly rose and approached the podium to give his responses to the proceedings of the conference. What struck me most were his final words of valediction—he waved goodbye with the most sincerest expression of feeling and emotion to the sky, the birds, the grass and the sea and the beach at Kalapet. There was almost nothing that he had chosen to leave out from his list of farewells! He pointed out to us that for those five days, he had lived by the sea he had walked the beach on early mornings without fail and encountered the sea and the birds and the fisherfolk! While he was talking, I was trying my best not to blush with shame and repugnance for the state of our beach and the filth and the nightsoil that he would certainly have encountered.

However, much to my chagrin, he said that he had himself felt disgusted about stepping on human excreta in the early hours of the morning in the beginning, but slowly had come to recognize that those people who relieved them selves on the beach were also an integral part of nature. What else could they do, where else could they go? They had diminished the sense of personal and private space, and for them there was but an extension of being. My theories of space and time needed to be revamped; my sense of personal and private needed to be reframed!

There are no easy answers to those questions that are sure to swell up in any reader’s mind at this point. Suffice it to say that space, personal and private, are what we make it out to be—and only if one feels the compulsive need for the same surface to be engaged with.

Last weekend, I had occasion to visit the most beautiful temple town of Tanjore and the equally beautiful town of Sreerangam. However, the most disturbing aspect of both these towns is of course the crowded temples. The famed temple of Sree Ranganatha and the Brahadeedswara temple complex were both spilling over with ardent devotees, morning, afternoon, and evening. This is not surprising considering the religious profundity of these spiritually unique places and the time of the year. But the thickly packed crowd in each of these places reminded me time and again of the idea of personal space. Why should one crowd so closely in on the other? Why can’t one retain a certain dignified personal space? Is this something to do with the gregarious nature of Indians in general? Something of that collective characteristic of the early times that still has managed to survive unashamedly? Like cows and sheep and wild cattle that stay together and move in one congregation, touching and feeling each other for comfort and collective security! No one seems to mind; no one seems to care. Every one is herded in to the place of spiritual security and sanction. And suddenly like the celebrity on television who advertised the glory of contact lens, I began to see and sense. I needed a certain personal space and a certain private sphere of my own–well, of course, not always, but most certainly for some time at least. And equally well, like my Taiwanese scholar, I came to realize that the distance from my being and those of my fellow creatures had begun to shrink as well. Where is East, and where is West? What is my self, and what is your self? What is filth, and what is sacred?

About Murali Sivaramakrishnan

MURALI SIVARAMAKRISHNAN-- poet, painter, professor and literary critic, is the author of The Mantra of Vision (1997), Learning to Think Like Myself (2010), Communication, and Clarification: Essays on English in the Indian Classroom (2014), and a number of critical essays and seven volumes of poetry. As artist and poet he is a committed environmentalist. His paintings have gone on display at several major exhibitions. He is a member of the scientific committee of English Studies, University of Valladolid, Spain. He was also a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti, New Delhi, and an Associate of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. He is member and coordinator of research of the Herman Hesse Society of India. Dr S Murali is the founder President of ASLE India. Murali’s Nature and Human Nature: Literature, Ecology, Meaning (2009) is a pioneering work on Indian ecocriticism. Its sequel, Ecological Criticism for Our Times: Literature, Nature and Critical Inquiry (2011)--ASLE India’s second book—has also received high accolades. He was awarded a Fulbright Postdoctoral Travel Grant to teach and do research in the University of Nevada at Reno(2006), and was invited to read his poems as part of the inauguration of the International Conference on Poetic Ecologies, held in the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, in May 2008. Murali’s sculpture (cast in fibre) of Prof CD Narasimhaiah, now adorns the conference hall of Dhvanyaloka, Mysore. Murali was featured as Poet-Artist in Indian Literature, Jan-Feb 2010, 255, pp. 127-132. The books he has authored include: South Indian Studies (Ed) (1998); Figuring the Female: Women’s Discourse, Art and Literature (2005)’ Tradition and Terrain: Aesthetic Continuities. (both co-authored with Dr. Usha V.T.); Ecological Criticism for Our Times: Literature, Nature and the Critical Inquiry ( 2011); Under the Greenwood Tree: Reading for Pleasure and Comprehension.(Ed) Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2011;Image and Culture: The Dynamics of Literary, Aesthetic and Cultural Representation.(2011); Inter-Readings: Text, Context, Significance. Ed. (2012); Communication, and Clarification: Essays on English in the Indian Classroom. 2014; Sri Aurobindo’s Aesthetics and Poetics: New Directions. 2014; Strategies and Methods:Relocating Textual Meaning,2018; Losing Nature,2018 and Roads to Nowhere,2019. Awards include the Life-Time Achievement Award for Poetry by GIEWEC, Guild of Indian English Writers, Editors and Critics, 2014. And IMRF Excellence Award, 2015 His poetry volumes include Night Heron (1998); Conversations with Children (2005); Earth Signs (2006); The East-Facing Shop (2010); Selected Poems (2014) Silverfish (2016) and Notebook of a Naturalist (2020)
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