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Mumbaikars Tell Their Own Stories of Privacy

The Lab recently released findings from a fascinating study of Mumbaikars’ perceptions of privacy and public space conducted during the Lab’s time in Mumbai (see the video above to learn more). As part of this study, which also included more than 800 surveys and 500 short-form surveys, 39 in-depth interviews were conducted with a cross section of people throughout the city. In many ways, these interviews helped develop the backbone of the Lab’s understanding of privacy in the city—the Mumbai Lab’s primary focus—and provided intriguing insights into issues of public and private space.

While I had heard many short clips of the interviews at listening stations that were provided at the Mumbai Lab, it was only recently that I had the opportunity to go through the full transcripts and really grasp the weight of the information as a whole. And while there are dozens of quotes I’d love to pull out and share on the blog, the most interesting pattern, for me, was that many people connected, and often equated, privacy with personal freedom.

As PUKAR executive director Anita Patil-Deshmukh mentioned in my previous post, the concept of privacy as it is conceived in the West is not necessarily thought of or articulated as such in India, where families traditionally share everything, and space both at home and in the public realm comes at a premium. The word “privacy” itself doesn’t actually exist as such in the local languages. So it’s interesting that when people were asked in the interviews to define privacy, or what privacy means to them, such strong similarities could be found across a variety of backgrounds.

One lower-middle-class 43-year-old woman living in 240 square feet with her mother in-law, husband, and son defined privacy in this way: “According to me, in every aspect of her life she should be going anywhere, she should decide about her life. If she doesn’t she will not progress in her life. No, I don’t think that I get that privacy in my life. Whenever I need that I go out when my husband gets time and I don’t explore things on my own. I don’t go alone anywhere.”

A 26-year-old upper-middle-class man with a private room who has a lot of space to himself said, “According to me, privacy is when you don’t have any pressure to do something that you want to do; it may be physical or mental. You should not have any burden while doing anything that you want to do at whatever time.”

A middle-class woman living with her in-laws said that privacy is when you can “eat when you want, sleep when you want, call in your friends whenever you want . . . that is privacy . . .”

An upper-middle-class 33-year-old man who lives in plenty of space with his wife and dog defined privacy as when “you are able to be yourself without the fear of being judged. It would be time to myself to do the things I like and love to do . . . privacy is a door to a lot of ease. It makes things easy.”

Similarly, from a middle-class youth, 20 years of age: “For me, privacy means having a small space where I can sit or stand or whatever, and people aren’t staring at you, they’re not bothered about you, and you can just be yourself.”

The Oxford Dictionary defines privacy as “a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people.” It occurred to me while sifting through these responses that the definitions I was reading from these people were essentially comprised of that definition, with a cultural context tacked onto it. And it’s true that the concept is deeply cultural. My own definition of privacy in Canada, where “minding one’s own business” is culturally expected would be vastly different from my definition of it in India, where my behavior and “business” is under constant scrutiny and question—even if only out of consideration and good intentions—from those around me.

So I’m curious to hear from others around the world in the comment section below: how would you define privacy? Do you get this privacy? If so, where? If not, why?

Also: be sure to check out the rest of the study’s fascinating findings, released this week.

  • Megha Joshi

    It is indeed strange that young couples go to public parks and public malls to get some ‘privacy’ in India’s cities…so privacy largely functions as a reaction to socially ascribed codes of acceptable conduct…

    Another interesting phenomenon I observe is the use of headphones in the metro/tubes (all over the world really) – one creates a private, individual environ in a hugely crowded space…