Here in New England we don’t often need air-conditioning. At home, fans and the judicious opening and closing of windows and window-shades keep us quite comfortable, except for a few days in the height of summer when it is hard to sleep at night even with all the fans at full blast. We’ve been having that kind of a heatwave in Massachusetts these past few days, and last Thursday it was so hot that we turned on the ancient air-conditioner in one room and all piled into it together. We set up our laptops there, served the meals there, and enjoyed the unaccustomed pleasure of three generations sharing a crowded space. On our visits to India, though, we find that such togetherness is the norm; in fact, when offered greater personal space, Indians tend to feel lonely and isolated.
In June 1998 Nikhil and I were staying in Delhi with my cousin Jayant and his family during that seemingly interminable period of time when it is unbearably hot and although the monsoon rains are due “any day now,” no one is sure when or whether they will actually arrive. The time between when we took our morning baths and when our clothes were fully soaked with sweat was infinitessimal. The energy required to hail an auto-rickshaw and go about our daily business seemed impossible to muster. And yet life had to go on, and did—mostly on the large bed in the one air-conditioned room in the house. Every so often a power outage would drive us into the large central hall where we downed cup after cup of hot, milky tea, or into the stone-floored bathroom where we took more and more frequent cold-water baths. But most of the time we lolled in that air-conditioned bedroom, watching cricket, tennis (Wimbledon), football (World Cup), and an unending succession of Hindi films, emerging only in the relative cool of the evenings and for meals, where only Jaya’s culinary magic—and of course mangoes, the season’s chief compensation—could conjure up an appetite in us.
When Jayant came home for lunch he would change out of his sweat-soaked work clothes and stretch himself on the bed in a fresh cotton banyan and lungi, joining avidly in watching and singing along with whatever blockbuster happened to be blaring; after lunch we would all lie down for a little nap, somehow fitting three adults and three young teenagers on that same all-accommodating bed. After a few days my elder cousin joined us with his son, and now four adults and four children slept in that one blessedly cool room, three on the bed and five on mattresses on the floor.
Even when we visited Delhi in the winter we gathered in one room most of the time. My cousin’s children had their own spacious bedroom, but spent very little time in it, or in any other room of the house, for that matter. Why be alone when you could be together? It didn’t make sense. When I think of the small families in the United States who live in mansions with a separate room for each of the children, who spend much of their time alone behind closed doors, I marvel at the cultural difference in the need for personal space.
When Indian friends or family come to stay with us, it is the same as it is in India. In anticipation of one visit, we had bought a new bed and set it up in the den so that my friend and her mother would each have their own room. But when they arrived they far preferred to sleep in one bed together, so the new bed remained empty. Similarly when the wife of one of my cousins came to visit I had set up a bed specially for her, but she felt lonely and afraid. She had never slept alone and would have preferred to be in the same room as me. If they can’t share a bed, our Indian visitors prefer to sleep with their doors open, curl up or stretch out together on our beds and chat (preferably accompanied by a succession of savory snacks and cups of sweet tea), and generally feel that the more people sharing a space, the merrier. There is no shyness over women sharing beds with women, men with men, mothers with their children, children all together: it is all perfectly natural.
Of course this togetherness is not born solely out of love for people, but also of necessity, and of course it is not a trait exclusive to Indians. Growing up in cramped conditions, my English mother and her two elder sisters shared one bed and her three brothers shared another. But having emerged from poverty they did not continue this practice into their adulthood, valuing their privacy even as they I suspect that they were happiest when they were together. Perhaps as more Indians become affluent they too will begin to value their personal space over shared space; I hope not.
We shared a home with a group of friends until Nikhil was nearly six, so he grew up surrounded by people. When our nuclear family moved into a home of our own, he looked forward to visitors. Whenever someone came to visit whom he liked (and there were few he didn’t like), he would ask hopefully if they were going to stay over. And when he liked them a lot, he would ask if they were going to come and live with us. I like to think that this desire to live with others is a natural one for us humans, and that we should seek and encourage cooperative and collective uses of space, not just because it is the right thing to do in our crowded world, but also because it is so much more fun.