A Collectivist Approach

Home to 1.37 billion people, India makes up almost 18% of our entire world’s population (based on the most recent UN data). Chennai, the city I study and live in, counts roughly as many people as currently live in Switzerland.

However, the area they live in is about 100 times smaller. This means that in every street, how narrow it may be, one will always find people walking by, honking on their motorbikes or trying to get to their destination with a tuktuk. In addition, cows blocking the street and stray dogs searching for food are omnipresent. There is a lot of life to be observed anywhere one goes, which I personally appreciate a lot. However, this density also leads to limited personal space, something that I as a European had to get used to first. However, it has to be pointed out that the population density varies drastically across the country. It is quite an experience to walk through the packed and vibrant streets of New Delhi on one day and then hike through the serene and secluded foothills of the Himalayas the next day.

The high density of people living in India contributes to its predominant social structure. India is seen as a collectivist society, compared to Switzerland which is an individualist society. To illustrate this, I state some examples which show this different approach of living together.

People exchange stories as well as food with their co-passengers as if with friends.

When a bus is packed with people, which is more often than not the case, the conductor doesn’t stand a chance getting from the back of the bus to the front or vice versa. The solution: people hand the money from one person to the other until it reaches the conductor, and then the same procedure is applied in reverse until the ticket reaches the commuter. If this had to be done in Switzerland, there would be a lot of explaining and talking including “thank you” and “you’re welcome”. Here people are used to it, and it is seen as a completely normal procedure which is not given a second thought – or word.

Train rides can be long, but surely never boring. People exchange stories as well as food with their co-passengers as if with friends. Comparing this to the Swiss train rides where conversation is usually restricted to asking if a seat has already been taken, the cultural differences become obvious.

I got lucky and was able to attend the wedding of a friend. Like all the ladies, I too dressed up in a colorful saree. Despite the efforts of my friends to help me drape the 5.5 meters long cloth, something must have gone wrong and entering the wedding hall, I stepped on the fabric which caused the whole saree to get out of place. In an instant I was surrounded by women providing me with safety pins and helping me to properly drape the saree again.

It can be a real challenge to cross a busy road. However, it is likely that someone else nearby has to cross the road as well, so the task will get a lot easier if you just stand next to another person and wait for them to start walking and cross the road with them.

The Indian railway app includes a service to order food, which will be delivered to the passenger’s seat at a train station of choice. Given the amount of people travelling on trains, this seems like an almost unmanageable task. I found out with surprise thought that in fact the system works very well, and my food got delivered hot and on time to my exact position in the train.

Those few examples stated here are in line with many more situations I have encountered in this country so far. In such a densely populated society, helping each other becomes a necessity. Kids learn from a young age that collaboration makes it easier to reach goals, as opposed to everyone only minding their own business. It is in the small things where compassion for fellow people is shown, be they friends or strangers. People have to find a way of living next to and with each other in small spaces, and it is interesting and educational to observe the ways people come up with managing this situation.

Alessia Giezendanner

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