Contradictions of Life
By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
For most of us, little lies, small deceits, petty pretensions are common—and we often indulge in them for no reason at all. With these silly pretensions we make our own tangled web. That is life, I suppose—a complex whole of contradictions. There are instances galore of our senseless pretensions, which we believe to be mode of civilization—though in reality they make life more complex. Not only that—they also make us downright hypocrites.
Every day we go through lies and pretensions, which are too many to enumerate. For instance, somebody died—and we go to offer our condolences to the family. It is an unwritten law of society that one must keep up social conventions—and hence paying a visit to the bereaved home is obligatory. Friends, relatives and acquaintances express spurious sympathy and shed hypocritical tears. Somebody may soulfully recollect some anecdote concerning the dead person—another may talk about his good qualities and how much he would be missed. Even if the family members of the dead are trying to take a grip on themselves and recovering from the shock, thoughtless utterances of the visitors may plunge the whole family into a morass of grief and despair again. We just do not let them forget the tragedy—and we do not want them to pick up the threads of life again. We never consider for a moment that a few bracing words with a tinge of sympathy may be all that the bereaved family need—and not our tears. Yet we can’t get rid of the idea that shedding tears and expressing sympathy are the done things, approved by society.
We are pretending all the time—often without any apparent justification. Somebody’s daughter elopes with her boyfriend in the teeth of opposition of her parents, and for them the shock of betrayal is unbearable. They shun company—as they dare not face people. Gradually perhaps the shock lessens—and the parents emerge from their seclusion—but with trepidation. Perhaps taking courage in both hands they stroll into a wedding or party. On seeing them, men lower their voices to hushed whispers—and the women significantly nudge the neighbours’ elbows. All of them put on their familiar masks of despondency and grief. But the parents are no fools—and tragedy makes them hyper-sensitive. They cannot bear the piteous looks of friends or acquaintances—and revert to their life of seclusion—from which they were trying to emerge.
A middle-aged gentleman enters a club and sits down amongst friends—he feels one of them. They too greet him, talk and laugh with him. But why do they seem to be so uneasy—and why do they avert each other’s gaze? Their laughter seems to be forced—there must have been some reason for their artificial chatter—well, there is. The unwelcome intruder is a gentleman in his late forties. His wife ran away with his best friend some years back. At that time he was inconsolable—and with two minor children he felt that the world had crashed around him. He stayed at home for months together—uble to bear the jibes cast at him by neighbours and friends. But time, the great healer, filly did succeed in giving him a fresh lease of life. Now he is perfectly normal—and his children are doing fine. Perhaps he would have forgotten the whole unfortute incident by now. But his friends would not let him do that—since they are all the time oozing sympathy—and the gentleman can’t escape from the unwanted sympathy.
Hypocrisy rules our life in any little matter. A neighbour’s fridge may have gone out of order. She comes with a bowlful of fish to her friend in the next flat and requests her to keep the fish in her fridge just for the night. The lady is all regrets—as her fridge too was giving trouble—could not she try another flat? She was of course terribly sorry for not being able to oblige her friend. turally the neighbour finds the pretext fishy—though she accepts it in the same spirit as was given. Gshing her teeth, with a frigid smile on her lips, she leaves to try her luck with some other friend. The moment she departs, the lady of the house brings out the iced pudding and frosted salad from her fridge to serve at dinner. If your telephone is not working try somebody else’s phone—it will be invariably dead—though you may hear it ringing merrily when you are leaving the place.
A wedding invitation comes your way—which you have no intention to attend. Of course you assure the lady that you would certainly attend the wedding—how could you possibly miss it—without the remotest intention of doing so. When next time you meet her after the wedding, you will possibly offer her apologies—regretfully say that you were suddenly taken ill on that very day. What would you tell her?—“My dear, believe me—I would not have missed the wedding for the world—but I was so ill that I could not even stand up. It is my blood pressure, you know”. You know very well that whenever you want to avoid some unpleasant task, you always refer to blood pressure as an excuse. It is so convenient. It is of course more than probable that the lady was not fooled. Why should she be? She herself does it so often that she can easily see through you. But that does not matter— at least you did your bit to keep up social convention.
Take this house—it is a huge mansion with a very well-equipped library—which you don’t often see. Books gleam in their magnificent glory from behind the polished panes. The proud mahogany frame enhances their glitter. You don’t find a speck of dust in those glittering volumes as they are dusted religiously each morning. It is a pleasure to watch those gleaming books—and if you are a bookish person, envy may gw your vitals. You will find books of William Shakespeare, Berrd Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Maxim Gorky—Poetry of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Milton jostling one another. Glittering Books written by new crop of writers—both on Indian and western side—are placed tastefully. Besides these gems of literature, there are also volumes of Encyclopedia occupying prestigious position. You look with awe at these treasures—which is an expensive display of an eclectic taste in learning. But have a talk with the domestic help, who is in sole charge of blowing away the most gging speck of dust from the shelves. He will vouch for one fact—that in his 20 years of uninterrupted service to the family he had never seen his employers flip through the pages of a single book. The only printed matter the lady of the house reads is some film magazine—while the master is addicted to comics. It is obvious that the books are kept in the show cases only to lend glamour to the family.
Let us turn to this couple. They are not happy—in fact, they go their separate ways, barring those days when joint presence is necessary. They make grand entrance at weddings or birthday parties—school function of their son. To the world at large, they look like a happy couple—made for each other. The husband solicitously opens the door of the car for the wife to step out. They gossip and laugh with friends—talk of movies or video—or tiol or intertiol situation, cricket, politics, inflation, about the holidays they were going to have. Then they leave with all the appearance of a happy couple. Yet they cannot fool others. Before the car goes out of the gate, friends discuss their imminent divorce.
This lady happens to be a Brahmin widow—only 46 years old—her so many dreams unfulfilled. Non-vegetarian food becomes taboo for her. She disciplines her food habits in the mandatory manner and turns vegetarian, keeping to the social custom. The initial grief subsides in the face of life’s overwhelming demands and the grief-stricken household limps back to the regular pattern. Occasiolly she cooks non-vegetarian food for her children and guests—suppressing her ignoble longing for them. The guests grimace and look uncomfortable, while eating fish or meat in her presence—they feel uneasy to see her meagre frugal meal—and coax her once or twice to taste some fish or meat. They tell her that it is mere prejudice. When she shakes her head vehemently in disagreement, the guests change the topic and embark on some cheerful themes. The widow knows in her heart that in actual fact they approve of her ‘correct’ attitude. She bridles her desires and proves herself to be a ‘worthy’ widow. She does take onion, garlic and ‘masurdal’ surreptitiously—but no other forbidden stuff. Occasiolly her mother-in-law, an old lady, rigidly adhering to social customs, comes from her village home to stay with the widowed daughter-in-law. During her stay the eggs disappear from the fridge and they are bundled in some nearby invisible packets and remain hidden in the farthest corner of the kitchen. The mum-in-law is happy to see such rigid correct adherence to unwritten laws binding the widows and she finds nothing wrong in her daughter-in-law’s diet. She very kindly asks her children to go out to her uncle’s place, which is nearby, for meals, if they ever feel the urge to taste non-vegetarian dishes. The young widow knows very well that what she does is stupid, unnecessary and sheer deception. Yet she dare not flout the social convention.
What will you call these little tricks? “Life-savers” or condemn them harshly as “pretensions”?
I prefer calling them life-savers. They are the timely and necessary acts of ivete, innocence, anger, surprise or grief, which save us at some awkward moments. What is the harm in keeping up some pretensions—without doing the least damage to anybody? You may never have stepped inside the planetarioum—but there is not harm in talking enthusiastically about the star shows displayed there. You may have never gone to the tiol Library in Calcutta—but surely there is no harm in gushing about those rare books placed there, which you have never seen. Who is going to ask you questions about the reading room or the area? Exclaim enthusiastically about the wonderful things you saw in the museum—though you have never gone within 100 meters of the place.
In an intellectual gathering, which you have idvertently joined—you merely have to jabber the mes of some writers. You may not be least interested in politics—but at least go through the headlines of the news papers—and you can rattle off mes and diverse incidents without batting an eye. Cricket, the most popular and fashioble game of modern age, despite all these match fixing scandals, may give you a pain in the neck—but never breathe it to a soul. Pick up some mes of the great players from your children—and you are “in” it.
We learn to mask our feelings—and show others the side we want them to see. Time is a great teacher—it tutors us to smile even when our heart is set on fire by envy. It teaches us to look the other way when a needy relative bumps into us on the street—to send the daily cup of tea to the private tutor—to offer tea and choicest scks to the car-borne guest—to feign illness in order to avoid some unwelcome guest—or to train our children to be friendly with the toppers—and never to dole out notes to friends. Make your son study throughout the day and a good part of the night—and then moan to friends that he does not study at all. When the results of the examition comes out and he secures a good position say gloatingly that you don’t know how he did so well without studying at all.
These are the little means of survival—which keep us going. You may call them deceit or anything you want to. But you can’t deny that they will help you go through life with equanimity. These little lies are necessary for our peace of mind and we will not ever regret them.