What we say and what we mean, the art of small talk : The Tribune India


Natasha Badwar

Let me start with my village house in Eastern Uttar Pradesh. It’s a new morning. Extended family members wake up and meet in the common living room area. I am the visiting city dweller trying to grasp the nuances of interpersonal communication in these regions.

An older person says to the younger one, “Did you wake up? Tum uth gay? »

I’m puzzled by the accusatory tone. It’s obvious that each of us who has gotten out of bed and is reading the newspaper, checking our phone for mobile signal, or arranging cookies on a plate in anticipation of tea has in fact performed the preliminary act of waking up. Is this a rhetorical question? Does this deserve a yes/no answer? I find that the correct answer is neither of these guesses.

“I’ve been awake for ages!” The youngest looks slightly offended, but then adds, “You were the one who was snoring when I woke up.”

“I haven’t slept all night,” the elderly person said, her tone laden with a dollop of indignation, topped with a cherry of self-pity.

This is not a one-time conversation, but a template for morning greetings. People say the most obvious things to each other all day. A guest will arrive out of the blue and say, “Are you home? The host will respond, “What do you mean? I’m still home. The two will sound mildly insulted as they sit down for snacks and gossip.

My husband often tells me not to take everyone’s words at face value. I stay quiet and curious and take notes on social niceties. One word that comes up casually and always puzzles me is bechara. “Hai bechara,” say well-meaning relatives in response to various situations. “Poor thing! »

Maybe my train was delayed for a few hours or I only got two gulab jamuns when everyone else got three. A concerned senior may have discovered that a child is now wearing prescription glasses. I may have had a health check, been declared fit and advised to exercise regularly. “Hai bechari,” a kind-hearted parent will say in response.

I tend to respond to the “poor thing” comment by quickly saying that it’s okay, that I’m not really embarrassed, and that they don’t have to feel sorry for me. I am not a bechara, I am a big privileged person. Most of the time, my worried loved ones are surprised. They look at me with a dissonance on their faces. I feel equally bewildered.

My husband is trying to explain this code to me. “It’s their love language, Natasha,” he tells me. “Accept it with grace.”

“But I’m not in trouble,” I said. “I don’t feel like a bechara. I don’t want them to misunderstand.

“Write this down in your journal,” he says, pointing to the notes app on my phone. “When you want to say I love you to someone, you say hai bechara. I’m so sorry for you.

“You mean treating each other like little victims is our way of making each other feel special?” I ask.

“Umm, you’re literal again,” he said. I’m confused but I comply with his instructions. I want to understand the rules of social engagement, even if they seem contrary.

Another setting in which we say one thing but mean something completely different is when we greet each other for meals. Relatives will call you to ask you what you like to eat, then cook exactly what they want to eat. Once we’re together, you can express your preference as much as you want, but they’ll be offended if you don’t eat what they want you to eat.

As an Indian with an underdeveloped palate for traditional cuisine that relies on the dubious magic of masalas fried in nutritious fats, I often choose the lighter preparations for feasts. I love the salads, rice and yellow daal as much as everyone loves their mutton biryani and kofta dishes. Unfortunately, that doesn’t sit too well with relatives who want to test my true feelings for them by showing them how much I can consume of what they load on my plate. As usual, I turn to my husband for help and if I can find some alone time with him, I transfer the treats from my plate to his.

“I bet she never has a stomach ache,” said one of my aunts as we huddled around a round table at a wedding after filling our plates from the buffet. She looked at my neat plate and looked like she was complaining.

“Maasi!” I said. “It’s because I’m afraid of having an upset stomach that I avoid the rich sauce here.”

“Liar,” she said. “You are on a diet. You are too fashion conscious. Look how weak you have become.

My eyes got big like dinner plates, but luckily I caught my husband’s attention in time. “That’s the goal of loved ones,” he reminded me. “To test you from time to time.”

“If you are healthy, they call you weak. If you are overweight, they call you healthy. What’s going on with us?

“Tell Maasi you love her. Just try it,” he said. “Maasi, meri jaan,” I say. “I love you. Especially in that sparkly saree.

“Hai bechari,” Maasi said, as her face broke into a broad smile. I gave her a hug because I knew she only meant it as a term of endearment.

The writer is filmmaker and author [email protected]

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