Getting in (and Out of) Line in India

In India and elsewhere, the reigning idea of modernity involves not just an evolution into queuing but also an evolution out. As scrums succumb to queues, queues are succumbing to the free market.

NYTimes: Getting in (and Out of) Line

When a line becomes necessary — say, while boarding a plane — some dutiful citizens will rise and form its initial trunk. Then, when the trunk appears too long to some, it sprouts branches. People create their own lines by standing next to, say, the fourth person in the trunk and hoping that others line up behind them. This process continues until you have a human evergreen tree, a single-file trunk of tender fools with impatient foliage on both sides.

There is a feline quality to standing in Indian lines. Certain parts of the man behind you — you don’t know which — brush against you in a kind of public square spooning, the better to repel cutters. (Women do less touching.) Still, this is no deterrent to cutters. They hover near the line’s middle, holding papers, looking lost in a practiced way, then slip in somewhere close to the front. When confronted, their refrain is predictable: “Oh, I didn’t see the line.”

India’s experience seems to feed into a tradition of seeing line etiquette as a marker of modernity, of graduating from chaos to order, whims to rules, brutality to gentility, scarcity to abundance