The Forbidden Ground
Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
What do you do when you meet someone who does what shouldn’t be done or says what shouldn’t be said? Do you retort rudely or keep quiet showing your displeasure? Well, in my case, I just stammer and say the wrong things. There are people like that—you know—prying into other people’s affairs. They are not all nosey parkers—some are genuinely concerned about you and your family in a good tured way—and are not aware that they have stepped into forbidden ground. They blunder along the way like a bull in a chi shop— where wise fears to tread. That is the class of people I dread most. The nosey parkers can be dealt with summarily in an admirable way. But those simple people, who do not know that they have done something wrong, pose the real problem. We may be indignt—but just cannot do anything about it. To hurt them is like hurting innocent children who do not know where to cross the line. I too have a niggling doubt that sometimes unknowingly I might also have invaded some forbidden ground.
There are some people who just can’t stop asking questions— embarrassingly prying persol questions. Possibly they are not aware how annoying their questions are to the other party. Once I was going by train to Delhi—and on the way I met a voluble lady. There I was sitting quietly minding my own business—suddenly the lady started making conversations. She told me where she was going (I forget the place). She informed me so many things about which I had not the slightest desire to know. Within the span of one hour I had the entire story of her life. She told me about her husband, children, domestic problems, neighbours and quite a lot of other things. I learnt that she was going to visit her married daughter, who lived with her husband and family. Out came the photographs from her voluminous bag—and I found myself looking at the pictures of a whole lot of strangers—the lady helpfully pointed out the people—her daughter, son-in-law, grand children, relatives, friends and all that lot. Not only about her life—I also came to know a lot of things about her daughter’s family and about the ill-treatment, she had to suffer from her unfeeling mother-in-law.
The lady’s husband sat in a corner, squirming with embarrassment—and he valiantly tried to cover up his wife’s volubility by edging a non-committal word here and there. But of course — the wife was made of sterner stuff. Nothing could check her flow of words. Then he pointedly asked the lady to take rest for a while. But she just laughed— and told the husband that in spite of all her illness she didn’t feel the least bit of fatigue. Then she informed me all about her diseases. To hear her talk you would think her to be a store house of all kinds of diseases.
Now, how do you deal with such kind of people who pour their confidences into your ears—which you would rather not listen? I am afraid that I totally failed to stop her flow of conversation. Words fluttered from her lips like confetti—but their meaning, if any, eluded me. It is not that I have an inferiority complex—but when I encounter such voluble magpies—words desert me—and I sit there like a dumb brick. I did the only thing that I could—that is—sent a silent prayer to Heaven to grant me some respite.
The prayer was answered—the lady reached her destition—and left me with obvious reluctance. Before leaving the train she urged me again and again to visit her home and pressed into my hand a piece of paper with her address. At last she got down from the train—and I heaved a sigh of relief—thank Heavens. But I could not help feeling guilty as well—she was such a good tured lady—with such generous behaviour. She did not even realize how much boredom she had created to the other party with her incessant chatter.
It is certainly true that all sorts of people make up the great human race. I too must have my own idiosyncrasies. Who am I to condemn another? Once I came across a lady who went on a spree of self-praise. From her talks it appeared as if she was virtue personified. She gave me the impression that she never saw evil, heard evil, or talked evil, like those proverbial monkeys. But in the very next moment she started running down a common acquaintance, who according to her was arrogant, malicious and dishonest. In the first opportunity, I left her to her speculations and went to a corner, farthest from her vicinity.
People who talk about themselves may be bores—but they can be treated with tolerance and indulgence. But what annoys me most are the prying questions about others. Some people, I find, are so much interested in other people’s lives, that they don’t ever realise as to how much their questions are offensive to the other party. Once I was stunned into silence by a relative of mine, who went on talking and asking about the affairs of my family. Without realising that he had trespassed into another’s territory. He seemed to know about my family more than I did and was not at all aware that his prying questions were totally unwelcome. Biting back the retort that sprang into my lips, I just maged to brush through his impertinence. One such person actually asked me as to how much I earned each month.
I sometime fume and fret at those who are rude enough to make impertinent observations. There must be some book of etiquette somewhere, which would instruct us as to what we should say or how we should deal politely with people and do not do what should not be done.
Again there are some scandal mongers who love to hear and discuss some misfortune or calamity which might hurt some others. They exaggerate scandals without realising that people living in glass houses should not throw stones at others. None is perfect—every family has some pitfalls. But unfortutely very few of us realise it.
Once somebody wanted to know, (a) where I lived, (b) where my husband worked, (c) when I was going to retire from my job, (d) how many children I had, (e) what they do, and (f) if I was happy with my daughter-in-law.
Thinking back now, I wish, I had been rude. I wish that I had retorted by asking how it affected her if I was unhappy or had lived in the arctic region. But I didn’t ask of course.
The sad truth is that this country has an over-supply of people who do not know where to draw the line. They happily go about asking prying questions and making impertinent remarks. Some helpfully give advice without anybody asking for it. Boorishness is the word to accurately describe their antics. And that differs from the friendliness and warm-heartedness India is famous for.
If we look through the etiquette books we find that most of them burst with “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for moments when we meet somebody for the first time. But they don’t say much on what we should do when we encounter someone who does what should not be done. In ancient times our ancestors probably replied impertinent questions by clanking the boor on the head with his wooden club and strolling on to his cave happily. But the 21st century rules of social behaviour won’t allow such luxuries. In one book I found that if someone wants to know your age, you may reply with ‘old enough to know better’ or some such thing, if you are coy about your age. Or, you may smile pleasantly without replying, hoping the hint hits home.
Martha Stevenson, a New York Times correspondent, travelling in India once wrote, “In Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and India, I was asked four questions usually in the given order: What is your country? Are you alone? Are you married? No Children?”
“The Guide to Modem Etiquette” says, “You have to place people a little before you know which conversatiol topics will interest them. But do it, if you can, by exchanging of information, not by questions which might appear prying. Today, if you want to know all these things about your new acquaintance, volunteer the same information about yourself, not as a recitation of course, but as a part of the story or statements. Nine times out of ten, the new person will match your information with his own, but the option is his. And if he thinks it’s none of our business then we should take the point without offence.
Of course there are people who ignore such advice. They hate if somebody asks them persol questions, but do not hesitate to ask such questions to others.
Perhaps it’s time we thought twice before asking a question. In that case conversation may be slow—but won’t be embarrassing to others. I think that we should ask ourselves what kind of questions we would find annoying—and avoid asking them.
It is difficult, I know, to decide what we should ask—as it is in our ture to be curious about other people—but not an impossible task. I believe daughters-in-law are particularly wary of the mother-in-law, for the simple reason that the mother-in-law often interferes with the lives of the son and his wife. It is hard to come in terms with the fact that the son, for whom she had done so much, suddenly deserts her and becomes closer to another woman. It is agonizing for a mother to relinquish the job of looking after the son to somebody else. She is afraid that her son may not be looked after as well—she might be tempted to take the son’s side when there is a fight or a mild quarrel that might crop up between the husband and the wife. But I think that it would be a terrible mistake on her part to do so. She should try not to bristle in outrage if she believes that her son has been ill-treated by the wife. It should be her endeavour to bring peace to the warring couple. A soft word can do so much good—it needs self-control, but it is usually much more effective.
Every day we do or say something which should not be done or said. With self-control, I suppose, it may be possible to correct ourselves.
(The writer is a former Head, Department of Philosophy, Cotton College, Guwahati)