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What exactly makes outsiders form opinions about us? Has it got anything to do with us at all or is it something about THEMSELVES that makes them form those opinions and conclusions without any basis whatsoever?

Once I went to visit a family I knew. The young daughter-in-law of the household was thrilled I had come over. She announced that she was going to take me to meet her friends residing in the same apartment block, and in her own words, show me off to them.  ‘Don’t say ‘no’! she urged, ‘You must come with me, please!’ I didn’t want to disappoint her. She looked so eager and happy. I was okay with it as long as I was to be left in the background and not expected to carry on the burden of conversation.

At the first place, things went smoothly. I was introduced, a few pleasantries were exchanged and then we took our leave to meet the next. The second friend seemed much closer to her for she was quite at home in her house. This is the Chechi I told you about, she said to her friend settling down on the sofa in the drawing room. I smiled in acknowledgement. What she said next made my jaw drop in surprise. Chechi’s lazy, not too fond of cooking, she said.

Frankly I doubt even my enemies would have thought of saying something of the sort about me. Quite possibly not. Everyone who has come across me knows this that I LOVE COOKING. I may not be a great cook, but I love cooking. What made it seem even funnier was that a couple of months prior to this incident, she and her family had stayed as guests in my house and I had gone out of my way (in spite of my health problems) to take good care of them, including cooking all the meals. In spite, there she was pronouncing me lazy and someone NOT TOO FOND OF COOKING.

But, what had made her conclude I was not fond of cooking? Some of my confusion and surprise must have shown on my face, I remember involuntarily swiveling my head her way, my mouth open and eyebrows raised, for she clarified, ‘Remember how your husband had got a dish from outside for dinner?’ A dish! One paltry dish brought home by the husband who wished to help in some way and ease my load of work. That made me lazy? AND NOT FOND OF COOKING TOO? Wow.

Wasn’t this merely a case of projecting one’s own self on others? I find this happening often, people making judgement calls on you based on absolutely nothing concrete other than their own prejudices and preferences. They assume you are like them. They do not like to cook, so if you ordered food from outside it automatically means you hate cooking too. That was their logic. Stupid really, but there it is. At other times it is because THEY WANT TO BELIEVE IT OF YOU. An example: Once someone was visiting. This person saw clothes that were not folded properly, but piled one on top of another in a disorderly fashion, in one section of a cupboard. By the way, those clothes were there waiting to be ironed. ‘Are they your clothes? Is this your cupboard’ There was suppressed glee in the voice that asked the questions.

I was once again surprised at the query directed at me (I fold my clothes and put them away neatly, and no I am not judging anyone who doesn’t, just saying that I do so). I also resented it. How could she think those clothes were mine? More importantly, WHY did she think they were mine? Where did she get the idea that I was messy when the rest of my house was proof of my tidiness? Then I understood. It was NOT about me. By believing that I was messy she could effectively strike me off her imaginary list of competitors for the best-housekeeping trophy and claim her place at the winner’s podium. Sadly, I was the competition in her imaginative mind, only I knew the truth that I wasn’t competing with anyone.

Not being the typical bharatiya nari has its ‘disadvantages’. Your non traditional style of dressing, choosing to do things the unconventional way, cutting your hair short, being disinterested in the things others hold dear, pursuing hobbies that are not common among women of your age (!), all work against you. It is assumed that because of all these, you are ignorant of things traditional, or that you are a lazy whatchamacallit who spends her day doing nothing. My mother-in-law was taken aback when I made a perfect typical Kerala dish of tapioca and fish when she visited. She grudgingly admitted (not to me, never to me) that I ran a good home a good twenty years into my marriage, this after years of speaking disparagingly of my capabilities to all and sundry, but by then I was beyond needing her (or anyone else’s) approval.

Does reading English novels and/or wearing salwar-kameez/jeans-top instead of a sari prevent one from cooking a traditional Kerala meal to perfection? The answer is NO. Try telling that to the many house-helps who have worked for me, who try to ‘educate’ me in the local ways as if I am a stranger to it all. I tell you, it is my short her that misleads them. Anyone with short hair (and wears tees and skirts to boot!) simply HAS to be ignorant of local things, right?

Once a couple of members of my extended family came by one morn around breakfast time. Seeing my disheveled state, one of them remarked, “You just woke up!” Though that had been her words, her demeanor conveyed more. What else can be expected of those who have accepted modern ways? You probably loll in bed till late in the day, I can see! I could read her thoughts like a book. The truth was, it being a holiday and with my sons still sleeping, I had been on a cleaning spree since the time I woke up (I normally rise with the sun however late I sleep) and had even swept and mopped the whole house. 

It’s all about them, these assumptions, opinions, judgments…. and nothing to do with who and what you are, is my conclusion. Their insecurities, their self esteem issues, their need to feel better, all play their part. And sometimes plain ignorance has its place in all this too.

©Shail Mohan 2017