(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 10th January, 2010)
Perhaps it happens at the time of birth – when a cluck of crooning relatives crowd us, saying “oh my God! How adorable! S/he looks exactly like you!!!” We stare back, wrinkled, pink, beady-eyed, bald or stringy-haired, as determined to contradict their expression of admiration as they themselves are to humiliate a woman who has just spent about a day pretty much pushing a watermelon out of a straw.
It is in our genes – we are addicted to pointless arguments, and we are compulsive exhibitors of convincing insincerity. These two qualities meet perfectly under one bracket – the human conviction that dead air cannot be good for anyone’s health.
There’s something about the concept of companionable silence that we as a species cannot grasp except in scripted audiovisual media, where camera angles and piano notes scream out the subtext. Leave two acquaintances in a room with no celluloid around, and one of them is bound to turn to the other and say something like:
“This feminism concept is very strange to people of our generation, ma. I’ll tell you this – howmuchever a girl studies or earns, she will not be truly happy until she has a home to look after.”
“Don’t you think the BJP would have done a better job of handling the Maoist menace than the Congress?”
“The minimum age difference between the boy and the girl must be ten years for a good marriage. What do you think?”
You could point out that Madonna and Guy Ritchie got divorced, or that girls are happiest when their mothers are looking after their homes or that if any party had handled any menace well, it would not be there today, and gratify your interlocutor and yourself. But on occasion, a combination of misanthropy and lethargy motivate the marginally less human of us to resist the cravings of our fellow-fauna, and a sadistic impulse forces us to agree with them.
“You know why child marriages were there in the olden days?” says Family Friend Uncle, “because all sorts of longings take place during adolescence. If you stifle them and have a late marriage, your body and mind get affected.”
“Yes, Uncle, all my divorced friends got married when they were adults.”
Family Friend Uncle looks startled, nods and makes another valiant attempt.
“Sometimes, beyond a certain age, you might not even be able to procreate.”
“And if you don’t have children by a certain age, it increases the risk of some types of cancer for women, no, Uncle?”
Family Friend Uncle sighs, nods and switches subjects. “Nowadays, people are running after money. You have a well-paying job and you are proud of being a workaholic. What is all the money for?”
“To keep your family happy, fulfil your own needs. But then we never find the time for it. True.”
Family Friend Uncle sighs and gives you up as a poor cause.
The second genetic defect we carry is rather harder to work on, though. We’ve all told each of our friends on her wedding day that she’s the most beautiful bride we’ve ever seen, and have never been able to stop at “oh, my God!” and allow for awed silence when presented with the day-old products of these unions – fine, ‘ugly babies’ is less convoluted, I know.
For my part, I try to stick to the truth and leave it open to interpretation. For example, every resignation letter I have written contains a promise that my attachment to the company will remain unchanged, and having worked in ten organisations, I know I have kept my word.