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, of which there are many. 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 rarely changes: “Oh, I didn’t see the line.”
But in a churning India, the line has new resilience. Businesses are becoming vigilant about enforcing queues; and a growing middle class, more well-off and less survivalist, is often less eager to cut. In this way, 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.
The reality may be more complicated, though: for in India and elsewhere, the reigning idea of modernity involves not just an evolution into queuing but also, in tandem, an evolution out. As scrums succumb to queues, queues are succumbing to something else: the free market.
The story of the scrum, the queue and the market begins, in most versions, in the state of nature, a Hobbesian universe of “nasty, brutish and short” lives, in which the scrum controlled all. People got what they got based on their ability to push and pull, maim and slaughter.
“When McDonald’s opened in 1975, customers clumped around the cash registers, shouting orders and waving money over the heads of people in front of them. McDonald’s responded by introducing queue monitors — young women who channeled customers into orderly lines. Queuing subsequently became a hallmark of Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan, middle-class culture. Older residents credit McDonald’s for introducing the queue, a critical element in this social transition.”
James L. Watson, the Harvard scholar whose research led to the entry, has noted that McDonald’s “did not, in fact, introduce the queue to Hong Kong.” But such is the association between globalization and lines in the Hong Kong imagination that the belief stuck, he reports.
“In less-wealthy countries the only way to get access to necessities is to push yourself forward.”
But the line not only speaks of civilization. It also stands for dysfunction: unemployment lines in recessions and depressions; lines in the Soviet Union to buy basics like meat and toilet paper; lines to get driver’s licenses worldwide; lines to register complaints; lines in which slum-dwelling women wait to defecate behind closed doors.
Faced with such lines, humans tend to imagine progress as an escape from linear waiting. As a FedEx advertisement put it many years ago, “Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming and incredibly expensive.” Contained in that last word is a hint of FedEx’s — and the modern world’s — solution: the free market. Why wait? Just pay!
You see it here in India. Even as it moves toward more orderly lines in some spheres, the line is under attack in others, challenged by the market. The famed Hindu temple in Tirupati, in southern India, now has a regular tour and a V.I.P. one, for those who pay. Even as new nightclubs bring rope-line culture to India, many also sell premium memberships that allow you to skip the line and walk in. For a fee, Indian cinemas now allow the sliver of Indians with Internet access to reserve tickets, even specific seats, online, sparing them the queues of the Web-less.
As with lines over scrums, markets have much to offer over lines. They are more efficient. They work well for those who, like many in the highest quintile of Indian life, have more disposable money than free time. They mop up much of the daily agony of waiting.
But the market also changes a culture.
It allocates efficiently, but it eliminates a salutary feature of line culture: the idea that, in line at least, we are no better than anybody else.
In a way, the market’s spread is a return to another kind of scrum, but a scrum in which financial, and not physical, might means right.