Everywhere in India people are waiting in line. It seems there is a queue for most everything one wants to do, from buying bus or train tickets, getting into a temple, or carrying out a simple transaction at a bank. The queue is ubiquitous-a product of too many customers and not enough clerks, archaic and inefficient ledgers to sign and forms to fill out, of systems with kinks and who knows what else.
Our first experience with a queue in India was at the airport in Delhi. It had taken two days to get from Boston (a flight delayed, a flight missed, a reroute from London through Helsinki to Delhi). At midnight, when we arrive, the airport is stifling hot and our senses are overloaded with thick and pungent air of India. We descend the stairs into a mass of sweating people pushing and shoving to get closer to the handful of customs officials deliberately checking passports. Welcome to India, the situation seems to say. In line, people are not at all interested in our attempts to keep the family together nor does anyone appear to be sympathetic to the bewildered stares of two small children whose inner worlds are being reorganized at that very moment. Old ladies in saris, young men in jeans and button up shirts, and carefully dressed businessmen are more than willing to step over our bags or crowd us to the outside and they push to the inside whenever the line doubles back on itself.
Most Indians, we have learned, have absolutely no concern for anyone else in a line. Or so it seems. In the market, standing in line for food, a woman simply walks in front of me and sets her basket on the counter; waiting to pay for fresh juice, a driver walks up and holds out ten rupees over my shoulder to get the attention of the cashier; in the bank, a well-dressed man simply walks in front of me as I reach the teller window and begins his transaction with the clerk; and at the temple, on a Monday during holiday, we are shoved against a metal gate as people push their way toward the entrance. At that moment, for the first time in India, we felt the movement of a crowd that can so quickly evolve from pushing and shoving into something more unpredictable, even terrifying.
The other day I was waiting in line at the market (the cashiers and the transaction protocols in the little markets here are astonishingly inefficient-hence the queues) and a pleasant looking middle-aged man walked in front of me and took his place in line. So I put my hand on his shoulder and said as kindly as I could, “excuse me, but I am waiting in line.” To my surprise, he was profuse in his apologies. He then stepped in back of me-not incidentally, in front of two others who had been in line before he tried to enter the queue. Then today, as I was waiting to pay for a thali lunch and two fresh pineapple juices, two young men leaned in front of me, got the attention of the clerk, and paid for their thali and juice before I could utter a word; later, as I was unloading a small basket of items at Spencer’s, a young woman walked in front of me and held out her rupees to pay for the bag of onions and packet of ghee she was holding in her other hand.
Taking cuts is simply the way one negotiates a crowded country, I guess, where it is every person for herself. So we’ve learned to press our bodies close to other bodies to close off inviting openings, and to lean over counters and hold our arms wide to block people angling toward the front. Still, coming from a country where taking cuts is not the norm, I can’t quite abandon the etiquette of a queue. No cuts, I want to say, like I did as a kid when we were lining up for lunch at school.