23/07/2015 8:05 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why Queuing In India Is Not For The Faint-hearted

PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images
Indian voters wait in a queue to cast their ballot at a polling station in New Delhi on February 7, 2015. Voters went to the polls in India's capital with firebrand former chief minister Arvind Kejriwal looking to complete a surprise comeback and deliver the first major blow to Narendra Modi's premiership. AFP PHOTO / PRAKASH SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

There is something about us Indians and queues. We seem to hate it indiscriminately - be it at bill counters, ATM machines, hospitals, cinemas, sports arenas, getting into and out of flights/trains/buses - you name it, we hate it.

In India, queueing is both an art-form as well as a test of survival of the fittest.

When we think of a queue, we often relate to the one made popular by Western civilisation with their prim and proper social etiquettes and tut-tuts/head shakes, should you happen to jump your turn. They not only have respect for one's private space (and privates), but maintain a reasonable arm's length distance whilst waiting in the queue. Yes, that's how it should be. Maybe in the rest of the world, but not in India.

Here, queues are a multi-dimensional world of pure wrestling ecstasy. It is a beautiful amalgamation of diverse people, all converging towards a focal point - the counter (or the entrance). Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Where else in the world, would you get to see so many diverse species in a single place? Maybe at the zoo, but you'd have to pay then. Here you even get a chance to interact with them.

It's perhaps best to say that queueing in India is not the same as queuing elsewhere. The reason - we don't take our queues seriously at all. For us, queuing is something we are forced to do. We do not do it out of the goodness of our hearts or kindness to a fellow human being; nor do we do it because it is the right thing to do, social-etiquette wise. We merely do it to appease the lathi-charging constable, or sometimes because that's the only way we can get to the counter.

The first step to tackling any difficult situation, be it an Indian queue, or a charging lunatic, is to understand the dynamics of your situation. With regards to Indian queues, there are three things to be aware of:

Personal Space Encroachment

Regardless of where you are queuing, do not be surprised if you suddenly find the person behind you breathing down your neck or his paunch offering your lower back a lumbar massage. Now, whilst most of you may think that the reason behind this "hokey-pokey" business is a lack of appreciation of the concept of personal spaces, the actual reason is quite simple. Give us even the smallest space to push in a finger or a nail, we will queue-crash. We simply believe in the the maximum utilisation of resources. So, in short, if you are not physically touching the person in front of you in any way, then you're not considered to be standing in the aforementioned queue. Whilst the situation is not entirely this bad for the women, I can't honestly say it's much better.

Wandering Attention

Do not - and I repeat EVER - let your attention wander, even for a fraction of a second whilst in an Indian queue. Imagine you're queuing for tickets at a train station, and as in normal tourist fashion, you have a backpack on your back. Something floats by and you turn sideways to look at it. After you're done with that momentary lapse, you try to turn back to fit back into the position you were previously. Do not be surprised if you aren't able to. This is because, the moment you turned sideways, the man behind you has moved forward to close the gap made by your vacating backpack. Tough luck!

Elbowing Is Your Right (or left - depending on your handedness)

Queuing in India is not of the faint-elbowed or the faint-hearted for the matter. If you are unfortunate enough to have to queue in India (trust me, you will have to), then be prepared to use those left-hooks and right-jabs to make sure you're seen to. The more your hand is in the face of the guy at the counter, the more likely you are to be picked next.

But here is the irony of it. We behave absolutely fine when abroad and when there are people from other countries around us. So our failure to have a systematic form of queuing is neither because of our "perceived" inability or unwillingness to follow instructions. When on a foreign soil, surrounded by foreigners as well as Indians, we do not jump queues or blatantly disregard rules. In fact, we are probably more conscious of the rules compared to others. We only seem to oppose it when we're predominantly surrounded by our own.

So maybe it inherently comes down to our confidence and trust in our fellow countrymen. Too many have set bad examples in the past - enough to make us think that we cannot be expected to follow rules and regulations. It's not just with queueing, it's with traffic as well, as any driver can vouch. On one hand, you want to set a good example and follow the rules to the T. On the other, experience has taught us that following the rules will get us our result, albeit a lot slowly than we would, say, if we jumped on the 'Indian queuing' bandwagon.

Another possible reason for our 'tendency' to jump queues is because we live in a huge, densely populated, desperately resource-constrained nation. How many times have you stood in a queue, in spite of others jumping ahead and cutting across, patiently waiting for your turn - and by the time your turn comes, the item is sold out? Sometimes, I feel like this principle of "if you don't have what it takes to shove your way to an opportunity, then you don't deserve it at all" is somehow ingrained into us. Of course with education, good parenting and social skills, you walk away politely from all the 'queueing circus acts' into one of us - the us here being everyone who willingly waits their turn in a queue without creating much hullabaloo.

But then again, in India, where the substantial part of our large population see their idols in our "numerous Bollywood heroes with their atrocious self-centred larger-than-life dialogues", I suppose you can't really blame them for taking some of the dialogues a bit too seriously.

After all, as superstar Amitabh Bachchan said in his famous movie Kaalia:

Hum jahan khade ho jaate hain, line wahi se shuru hoti hain!*

* Roughly translates to: The line starts from where I stand.

Somehow that effect is lost in translation.

A version of this post was first published on

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