Lessons from the Madras Club – Lesson 4: There is no such thing as privacy

Lessons from the Madras Club – Lesson 4: There is no such thing as privacy
High density living and no room for privacy

Don’t feel like reading? Listen to me tell the story.

Introduction: – “The Club is like an extension to your home so you don’t want to let just anyone in.”
Lesson 1: Customer service is an oxymoron – “The customer is the biggest enemy in your life”
Lesson 2: India and X-efficiency – “You want to know the problem with Toyota?”
Lesson 3: Everyday is judgement day – “This is India. Forget the Madras Club. Everybody judges everybody. The minute he leaves the room I’m going to judge his arse…”

Lesson 4: There is no such thing as privacy

“They call me WHAT?”

Privacy does not exist in India unless an extreme amount of money changes hands, and even then, you might be lucky.  In Lesson 3 we discussed the collectivist nature of Indian culture, how your life is not your own, and the nation’s insatiable penchant for gossip.  If you layer the high density population over those complete lack of personal boundaries, you start to see how there could be a nation where there is no chance of personal privacy ever.

I had absolutely none there, whether staying at my first serviced apartments or subsequently in the Madras Club.  Everybody who wanted to, knew all of my movements.  One of my work colleagues told me the security and staff at my serviced apartments had a special name for me.

“They call me WHAT?”

The not so V-VIP

“They call you the V-VIP,” he said. “Because you are always getting dropped off in different luxury cars in the evenings.”

Ha!  It occurred to me they must have thought I was the worst paid prostitute in the land.  My basic routine then was to leave the apartments in my walking gear on foot at around 5.30pm and continue my walk on the walking track at the Madras Club for about an hour after that.  I would then hang at the Sports Bar for liquid and other refreshments for however long it was entertaining, anywhere from between 8.30pm to 12.00am, then someone would drop me back at the apartment a short distance away (still in my classy walking gear), because walking anywhere outside the Club was so unbecoming and my friends were all super lovely and polite.  In the minds of my security, while demand for exercise fetish white hookers was clearly high (as this was my routine most nights of the week), payment must have been poor as I was still staying there after all…

And how did my esteemed work colleague know all this given he was not the type to fraternize with building security?  The driver would chat to the security when he came to get me for meetings, then he would tell my colleague what they said.  How late I was coming in, what kinds of cars dropped me off, and probably even what I had for breakfast that morning such is the food obsession of the nation…

The extreme network

In the upper echelons of society, drivers, house keepers, cooks, cleaners, and security all funnel information amongst themselves about whether your toilet got clogged up last night, the guests you had over, or what little Ravi stole from grandma’s room last Tuesday.  This information is then passed on to other houses they work in or who their friends work in, whose cleaners/drivers/security etc… may tell their bosses and so on.  Drivers are the best conduit as they hear juicy phone conversations in the cars, and have more time for idle chat with their bosses.

Concierges at all of the five-star hotels have photographic memories for all of their V-VIPs.  In Chennai when I was there, the only bars legally allowed to serve alcohol were attached to hotels with more than twenty rooms.  Therefore most of the semi-decent bars were also at these five star hotels.  Many of my friends no longer frequented such establishments, but because they did in their younger years, there were concierges there who still remembered them and treated them like royalty.  A lot of them also gave decent business to the hotel’s rooms and other facilities through their businesses as well.  Oh, and knowing how and who to tip didn’t hurt either…

I became a V-VIP by association and was memorable, not just for the heroes I arrived with at different times of the day depending on the occasion, but for being a wicked white woman of the west.  There was no way I would ever have a sneaky sojourn in any five-star in Chennai without that information being available through the network.  But that was the same for all of my V-VIP friends.  There is no privacy at home, and you certainly can’t expect it at hotels either, so where can you get it?  Far, far away.

Extreme care

I never realized what a luxury medical privacy was until I went to India.  Personal data privacy laws including for medical records were put in place in 2017, but they are certainly not practiced widely yet in the medical profession.  It appears this information is happily shared throughout the community for the greater good.

One friend in her 20s told me about what I would catagorise as a MAJOR breach of medical ethics and certainly illegal in most places I have lived.  She went to her long-term family doctor and had some blood tests and travel vaccinations ahead of a trip.  When she got her results, the doctor told her the good news she tested negative for cocaine in her system.

What?  She didn’t ask to be tested for that.  Apparently her mother asked the doctor to slip in a few extra tests and let her know exactly what her daughter was up to.  Of course she felt extremely violated and will now never trust or go to that doctor ever again.

I had my own experience with when the community gets on board to help you with healthcare.  I had a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning which saw me sick for days and hospitalized twice.  My lovely friend I stayed with knew the doctor treating me, so when they came to pick me up, they knew all of my results before I even got in the car!  Another lovely friend intervened with the hospital and expedited my treatment which made a huge difference given my weakened state. 

In the Madras Club later that evening, there was not a person in the Sports Bar who didn’t know the state of my stomach contents.  It was a very strange feeling.  On the one hand, I had the village rally around and support me during my incredibly weakened state which was lovely; on the other hand, I never had doctors talking to anyone other than me about my health since I was a small child!

High density privacy

Of course the vast majority of India does not have the level of home help afforded to my esteemed Madras Club friends, but that does not mean they are exempt from prying eyes.  In the slums everyone lives on top of each other and often many people share single rooms.  Some companies provide dormitories for their staff if they move them from another state, so those companies know everything about your movements both at work and home.  Apartment buildings often have security and common cleaners to gossip relentlessly with tenants, and/or there will be some old man sitting on the balcony keeping a watchful, righteous eye over the general apartment’s activities.  Then there are the street vendors, local auto drivers, pharmacies and so on who will all get to know their locals and spread the gossip around nicely.  

It really is everyone’s business who is kicking around in their limited space.

What does privacy mean when you have none?

Coming from a place where we even enforce the laws that protect our privacy, I really noticed it when it was gone.  It made me wonder what privacy must mean to people who have never had it.  So I asked an assortment of my friends from different walks of life across India what the word meant to them.  These were some of their unprompted first responses.

“I don’t like anyone watching me when I’m having sex or using the restroom.”

I thought this was a fairly bare minimum place to start for privacy!  They concurred and I commented in India I expected that is likely about all they could hope for…

“Don’t let anyone open your pant button or unzip you in public. Keep a secret. No plagiarism.”

Again, this is at a pretty personal, ‘private part’ level off the bat.  This person then asked me what privacy meant to me.  “Being able to get on with my life without everyone knowing my business,” I said.  They then told me about a private family issue and how quickly the Chennai telegraph pole of gossip just spread it around.

“Privacy means you don’t have to share to with everyone emotionally.  For example, with my fiancé I do not share everything.  For my Mum, everything we will share, but some things can be emotionally disturbing so that is why we make it as privacy.  So privacy means some secrets to not hurt them emotionally.”

This comment interested me.  I read it to mean everything is expected to be shared as a baseline, but some things can be kept secret to ‘protect’ your loved one’s feelings. 

“Ability to protect personal information without my consent to the public.”

When I asked if this was possible in India they responded, “If you talk about individual’s privacy against the state, it’s possible to an extent.”  Then when I pressed them on family and community they said, “It’s a grey area. I will say the concept of privacy is nonexistent in families.”

“My personal space — not to be touched at all … What I love to eat drink wear how I sleep etc etc sud (should) be 100 (%) known only n only to me.”

I asked this person if this existed for them in India.  They responded, “Not really.  Difficult to maintain.”  I found it interesting this person is well past marriageable age and is not married, so they have not conformed.  This person also travels outside of India very regularly so can access privacy more than others.

“Privacy has layers.  For me it is defining the limits of it and then living by it.”

I couldn’t help but take a jab at this particular friend as I am aware both in their marriage are staying only because it is India, they married, and had a child.  “Be an Indian then you’ll realise how easy it is to get out of a marriage,” they said.  “Easy to make fun of as an Aussie, but difficult when you get in my shoes.”

“It means discrete.  And no public access.”

When I asked if this existed at all in India, they said, “Not at all.”

“Being free from getting attention. I guess in India you have to do different things to achieve that vs other places but its achievable sure.”

This was SUPER intriguing.  Although this person lives overseas, they return regularly, and are still very much tapped into all things India. What kind of things could you possibly do to get privacy?

“You have to stay away from ppl (people) .. take yourself out of circulation .. only maintain the right level of communication with loved ones so they don’t go nuts worrying,” they said and then continued, “Most western countries the privacy is inbuilt even if you’re in circulation .. you’re allowed to have a certain distance in your relationships and interactions. In India, there’s much lesser distance once familiarity is established.”

I mentioned in my experience it was ZERO distance.  They laughed and agreed.

“In an ideal world it would mean people minding their own affairs and letting people be. But privacy to me means nothing because everyone is nose deep in everyone else’s business.”

From the mouths of babes…  True words of wisdom here which I felt summed it all up very nicely.

Privacy and the law

Personal data protection laws were first introduced in India only in 2017 and were modified again recently.  Most commentary is widely critical of the laws, the government’s ability to police them, and the checks and balances over the government’s handling of the data given they illegally sold billions of records to private companies over the past few years.[1][2][3]

While there is talk that at least HAVING laws is a step in the right direction even if they are fundamentally flawed, I do wonder how it is possible for the government to oversee privacy given their shoddy track record for doing anything,[4] and their citizen’s fundamental lack of appreciation for what privacy actually is or how important it is in this space, given they have no experience with it in other parts of their lives.

What is the real lesson here?  There really is no such thing as privacy in India. But when your community is “nose deep” in your business, they will wrap their arms around you when times are bad, and judge the heck out of you when times are good.  Just go with it.

Want more Lessons from the Madras Club?

The next topics I planned to cover in the Lessons from the Madras Club might be a little too hot for the internet so I am switching to new content.

But if you want more, there is plenty I have left to say!

If 100 people to sign up, I will send you exclusive NEW Lessons including on:

  • Politics and leadership
  • Sex and fidelity
  • The trials of extreme wealth

I want more Lessons from the Madras Club!

[1] https://www.cpomagazine.com/data-protection/privacy-advocates-and-businesses-take-issue-with-indias-new-data-protection-law/ accessed 29 August 2020

[2] https://carnegieindia.org/2020/03/09/will-india-s-proposed-data-protection-law-protect-privacy-and-promote-growth-pub-81217 accessed 29 August 2020

[3] https://hbr.org/2019/12/how-india-plans-to-protect-consumer-data#:~:text=Privacy%20as%20a%20fundamental%20right,navigating%20in%20the%20digital%20world. Accessed 29 August 2020

[4] I don’t need a citation to surmise there is corruption at every level of government, but read the articles above to see some of the fun breeches in this space…

To be continued…

Thanks for reading and/or listening.  I hope you enjoyed it.  If you did, please like, comment and share on social media.  I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin and my handle is @ClaireRWriter.

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Until next time!


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