The What Ho! Guide to Handling Queues in India

The word “queue” traces its origins to the Latin “coda” or “cauda” for “tail”. It came to English via French (and Italian) and was first used to describe the “tail of a beast” and then extended to “a line of dancers”. The verb in its modern context of “to stand in a line” is recorded only from 1927, and was popularized by Winston Churchill, when he coined the term Queuetopia to describe Britain under Labor governments

In the relatively short time it’s been around, the word has gone from strength to strength and now even has a branch of mathematics named after it. Queueing theory (the study of queues) has applications in every aspect of life from retail stores through urban transportation planning to air traffic control, not to mention software, telephony, networking and manufacturing. At the heart of it, queuing theory is about modeling queuing behaviors and devising the speediest mechanisms to dispense services to different types of queues. While there are many and varied benefits that have accrued from this science, one of its great failings has been to sufficiently understand and predict queuing behaviors of Indians, a problem which is now considered by many to be the Holy Grail of research.

Lateral Thinking (and Movement)

The real reason why queuing theories have been unable to predict behaviors of Indian queues has to do with what is called non-linear or lateral thinking. Linear thinking is what most of us engage in, most of the time, and is defined as rational, logical and analytical thinking. In contrast, non-linear or lateral thinking is based on intuition and creativity. Another perspective is to look at linear thinking as related to cognitive intelligence, and lateral thinking as related to emotional intelligence.

Fun lateral thinking puzzle: A man fell out of a twenty storey building on to the ground, and survived. How?

When queuing theories built on logic collide with the abundance of emotive intelligence and lateral movements found in our Indian brethren, it leads to fascinating and exotic results. Interestingly, cultural and philosophical differences around concepts of time and space influence behavior in queues. An example: People in India, China and other Asian cultures tend to care about the number of people behind them in queue, while folks in the west care more about the number ahead of them. No wonder the queues in the West tend to be orderly and straight, while those in the east are more like chaotic bell curves in a jail breakout.

The What Ho! Guide to Handling Queues in India

There are 5 types of queue crashers in India. All you have to do is to keep an eye out for them and ensure they don’t succeed in their nefarious intentions.

5. The Wonder Woman

Two hundred or more years back, the British instituted a protocol of serving women first in queues, no matter when they arrived. Although the Indian society has become less chivalrous over the years, the wonder woman act still works in platform ticket counters and select movie theaters to this day. The beauty of this method is in its simplicity. It involves sending in a member of the gentler sex, who can use her elbows freely and not so gently to make her way to the top of queues.

4. The Gate Crasher

Gate Crashers tend to be stocky, moustached males, and amble in wearing spotless white dhotis and shirts, accompanied by entourages of similarly attired and countenanced individuals. Standard operating procedure is to talk loudly and rudely on a mobile phone, (thus creating an intimidating aura of ‘don’t even think about messing with me’), and casually sauntering up to the ticket booth and taking it over for extended periods of time while other queuer-uppers cower meekly in silence.

If your profile attributes don’t include stockiness, male gender, moustaches and color coordinated large entourages, bodily harm can ensue as a consequence of any attempt to execute this technique.

3. The Crash Cult Member

We suspect that a Queuing Freemason Cult (QFC) has quietly built up membership of gargantuan proportions in this country. Upon flashing of the QFC signal, a member already in the queue warmly greets a stranger (but a fellow cult brother) outside the queue, and skillfully inducts the aforementioned cult brother into the queue exactly at the time of being served. Not infrequently, clerks at counters are also QFC members, who weave in dispensation of services to fellow cult crashers in the guise of casual chit-chat, while an unsuspecting public dutifully awaits its turn.

Part of the Crash Cult Member genus is the ‘Socializer’, who, though not a cult member, has the uncanny knack of spotting fourth cousins, distant relatives or long lost friends in a queue within a few seconds, and immediately proceeds to deploy “the Artful Mingler” technique (see no. 2 below) to maximum effect.

2. The Artful Mingler

The Artful Mingler represents the pinnacle of not just lateral thinking, but also of agile, lateral movements. He sidles and sidles alongside in an imaginary queue, immune to perplexed glances and baleful stares. The modus operandi involves spraying of malodorants (yes, we just made this word up) on self beforehand, gradually escalating levels of physical contact, and resolute squeezing into the line as the queue heads to its climactic finale.

A less successful variant of the Artful Mingler is the “Seemingly Absent Minded Mingler”, who puts on a convincing act of absentmindedness to insert himself into the queue, and will neither cease nor desist until the severest of admonishments come his way. Often expresses genuine indignation and insincere remorse immediately prior to being ejected from queues.

1. The Human Nano Particle Dart

The Human Nano Particle Dart’s distinguishing traits are the ability to spot gaps of sub-atomic magnitudes in queues, and the equally astonishing capacity to insert self into such gaps at the speed of light. Insertion methods involve use of fingers, toes or nails to stake claim to a place in the queue. Human Nano Particle Darts have been observed to obtain best results during early stages of queue formation, when confusion and chaos reign supreme. They are considered by some to be fuzzy, quantum versions of the “Artful Minglers”, though they neither mingle nor are artful.

Have any fun queuing experiences? Pray, please share.

Answer to puzzle: He fell out of the ground floor.


8 thoughts on “The What Ho! Guide to Handling Queues in India

  1. Daraius

    Must pay homage to my mother and others like her who had appointed themselves Guardians of Queue Integrity.  She would take on even the stockiest Queue Crasher and his entire entourage if necessary.  When the tongue lashing was complete, most others in the queue would join in indignantly, while secretly feeling sorry for the humiliated fellow slinking off to the back of the queue.


  2. G.N. Balakrishnan

    Forming a que at places like bus stops etc will be of very great help for senior citizens like me, when we are elbowed out most of the time in almost all places in cities like Chennai, whereas, I salute the great city of Bombay, where I find it growing more and more stronger. I wish  more and more people emulate the example of Darius"s mother to put the fear of God in such scandalous misbehaviour of regular que-breakers


    1. what ho!

      the straighter the queue line, the higher the GDP of that city perhaps? perhaps we need queue bodyguards, who will help(senior citizens) counter elbowing miscreants..Something for the civil rights society to munch on..:-)


  3. Uma Chandra

    the wonder woman eg is a very astute observation by the author. in south india we have separate queues for men and women in most places except those like cinemas or macdonald's. but still, the wonder woman concept applies to both men and women queues. except when the wonder woman is making her way into a woman's queue she somehow magically transforms into 'the gatecrasher'. plus there are plenty of the 'crash cult member' types around – i have had the privilege of personally interacting with many such people and also have inevitably ended up in catfights and territorial brawls to which i claim no personal responsibility. they have committed crimes such as sneaking in their own circle of friends, relatives, and long-lost brothers — which is apparently quite a 'lineful'. many a 'tame' mamis, helpless old folks and innocent youngsters have been ousted out of their seats to their dismay and helplessness. all they could say was 'bhagavan paathupaar'. an occasional flagholder for the underdog would get badly tongue-lashed and sent into the bottom of the netherworld. but my real question is "is there really a queue system anywhere?" we just imagine it exists — bah! just wishful thinking!! it is an illusion – maya – we quarrel for seats or positions that don't really exist. that's how i've stayed thus far away from the queue theory using some lateral thinking abilities.

    the spectrum of venues for queue crashing is wide and variant viz. even places where normal human beings would hesitate to be out of decorum figures in this 'cauldron list'. if we were to put these places on a scale of rating in the spectrum starting with 'most dignity of behaviour' on one extreme to 'places where shameless is the motto' on the other end., starting with – places of worship during off season, counters at bookstores and electronics (i'm not including hot and happening iStores here), airports during non-peak hours, cinemas during non-rajnikanth releases, supermarket counters lunchtime, prepaid taxi counters, supermarkets during closing time, airports during peak hours, railway bus station counters, places of worship during full season, railway and bus boarding areas in peak hours, cinemas during rajnikanth releases — anything worse than this could only be parking lots and goods shops in t-nagar in full season!! by the end of it all human dignity is lost in the push and pull!


  4. G.N. Balakrishnan

    Suddenly I remembered an old joke read about 30 to 40 years back and I would like to share it with all of you. I do not remember the author of this single line joke which says "IT IS SILLY TO MAKE A QUE, WHEN THERE IS NOBODY BUT YOU".



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