Standing in lines is an unavoidable part of living in a civilized society. Lines help create an order in which people avail some service and help avoid chaos which will ensue if everyone tries to avail that service at the same time. In the 9 years that I spent in the USA, following lines almost became second nature to me. It felt like getting into an unwritten agreement with the fellow customers of an assigned designated order. Recently, I relocated to India, and with me, brought my acquired behavior of following lines.
My recollection from the days before I left India was that very few places follow lines. I was pleasantly surprised that a lot more places now try to follow the line discipline. However, lines in India work in a slightly different way than they do in the US. First, there is no sense of personal space. People behind you will be pressing their bellies against your back and letting you know what they ate for the last meal by breathing down your shoulder. A bigger problem is line cutting – I have never stood in any line of some significant length in India without witnessing some person cutting in. Discussing this problem with my friends, I get responses that can be put into 3 broad categories. The first category is people who are surprised to know this happens since it has never happened to them. The only explanation I have for this phenomenon is that people in this category have become so habituated with line cutting that they don’t even realize this happens. The second category is people who say that I too should learn this existential skill. This is exactly the category of people who are responsible for this problem in the first place. The third category is where I am preached to strive for inner peace. I am told that if one or two people cut in line, let them – In the bigger scheme of things, this doesn’t really matter.
If you observe how lines operate at the airports, you will know that lines in India are a very artificial and fragile phenomenon, and people are forced into it against their will. Entry into the boarding gate requires ticket checking, and the airlines somehow manage to keep people in line long enough for that – even if with a few line jumpers. However, as soon as people cross the gate, this discipline falls apart and everyone tries to get on board the shuttle with such a hurry that it is hard to believe that they actually have preassigned designated seats on the plane. I think having grown up in a society where demand has always outnumbered the supply in almost all wakes of life, fighting for the first spot has become automatic behaviour of us, and we resort to it even in places where it serves absolutely no benefit.
What can you do to avoid being cut in line? Waiting in lines for buying pop-corn at the movies, I have learnt that one good tactic is to hold your arms wide, to give the perception of a bigger body size and also to block the way for line cutters to get past. The second tactic is to stay very close to the person in front of you, just the way the person behind you is hugging you – this ensures there is little room for the line cutter to squeeze in. Make sure you face the counter and do not get distracted by phone calls or conversations – people should know that you mean business. But these tactics don’t always help. Once, waiting in line at a ticket booth, where the clerk had gone on a short break, I made sure that I am hugging the ticketing window, being the first in line. A guy still managed to come from the side, took out a 100 rupee note from his pocket and wiggled his hand in the small gap between my belly and the ticket window to put it in the window.
If avoiding line cutters does not work, should we confront them? I have been trying this strategy, and it almost always worked for me. The perpetrators generally backed off, though after applying different degrees of resistance. On none of the occasion did I witness any support or even interest from other people in the line behind me, even though this impacted them just as much as it did me. While I have had a good success rate with confrontation, it may not always work, as it happened with me recently. I was standing, reclined against the checkout counter, waiting behind one other person on the Delhi airport news stand. A decent looking and well-dressed man, in his mid 40s walked up to the counter and squeezed into the small gap between me at the first person in line. I confronted him. He told me that I am not in line since I was not standing in an upright position facing the clerk. The clerk tried to interject saying that I have been waiting for a while, but that person started yelling at the clerk. The clerk asked his colleague to come open another counter for that man. Walking away, the person commented, “Hum jaha khade hote hai, line wahi se shuru hoti hai.” (The line starts where I stand).
For any foreigners visiting India, they would do best to simply avoid lines - have some local guide or agent do the standing in line for you. If it comes to doing it yourself, leave aside the need for personal space. Be firm and assertive – most line jumpers are meek at heart – so it may not be too difficult to scare them away. If you see someone moving past you, make sure you tell them that you are actually waiting in line and that they should wait behind you. If the other person is reasonable, he would go back. If not, avoid confrontation – just accept that your next Indian experience will be delayed by a few minutes. Always be ready to walk away way before things seem to be getting confrontational, loud or aggressive.
If we all resolve to not allow a line jumper to get by with his act, over time, we should see less and less of it. Even better, the readers, who are line jumpers themselves, should resolve to stop jumping lines. Let us all promise ourselves that whenever we have an opportunity, we will try and form a line. Whenever we are in a line, we will follow it with discipline. I believe fixing this problem will make India a more beautiful country.