Question: What is the one thing that is freely and ungrudgingly given away by Indians, with great pleasure?

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Answer: An opinion.

I realized this just recently, when I moved back from the United States to India with my family. The moving experience itself was a little traumatic, but what came after was a lot of drama. We were assailed with opinions right and left, pro and con, for and against, good and bad, right and wrong, until we were totally dizzy. We, who had been left well alone for almost 20 years in the Unied States, were being told what was wrong with our lives and how we could go about correcting it before it became too late and we were totally ruined. This experience left me in tears, and even shook up my husband, who is normally made of sterner stuff.

It started off quite well, actually. The first three people we met congratulated us.

“You did the right thing in coming back,” they said.

“There is recession there now,” said one man. BPOs were laying off people right and left in India too, but we didn’t comment.

“Too much swine flu,” said a woman. She had probably missed all the local reports about dengue, encephalitis, and chikungunya.

“Lots of racism, no?” asked another. Meanwhile local papers had been inundated with stories of people killing each other in religious riots.

But the fourth wasn’t happy with us. “Why did you come back?” he demanded. When we replied that we wanted our children to know the people here, he was stunned. “Do you really?” he asked.

This was just the harbinger of things about to come. We had admitted our children in an international school so that they would not feel too out of place amidst children from other countries. Almost immediately, we came under fire.

“You made a mistake,” said a neighbor.

“Those schools are useless,” said a relative.

“I heard about that school from the relative of a friend of an acquaintance, and it is bad,” said an acquaintance of a friend’s relative. They all magnanimously agreed that we had to make the best of a bad deal for a year, and then switch to another school. At this point, they had a falling out.

“East or West, CBSE syllabus is the best,” said one. “Without high marks, you can’t get anywhere in India, and for that State Board is ideal,” said another. “I say always go with ICSE, for it has the best exposure to every subject,” pontificated the third. While they were arguing with each other, we quickly made our exit.

This scenario was repeated over and over, with variations in the subject, but no change in the theme. Each one of our decisions was analyzed endlessly, be it our internet provider or our tamarind seller. I wondered why they did it. Was it because they were truly concerned that we got Airtel TV instead of Tata Sky, or Samsung instead of Kelvinator? It was just a trivial matter, wasn’t it? Or perhaps they were just bored as nothing interesting was happening in their own lives. Certainly IPL was taking a break, and there was only the Khan controversy and swine flu to talk about. But we were no Kennedys of the United States or British royalty for providing fodder for gossip. What could we be doing that could cause phone wires to hum, and people to stay up at nights?

We didn’t have to actively do anything, as it turned out. We were just fresh meat in a society of flies that loved to mind each other’s business. True, it was all done with the best of intentions to help us. But it sure bothered us, because a lot of the advice was conflicting, and all the people who were offering it were our “people”, friends, relatives, neighbors, and such, people who supposedly cared about us, and, therefore, people whom we didn’t dare offend. And they did get offended if we didn’t take their advice, even in the most insignificant matters.

“Why don’t you use the coffee-maker that you bought the other day?” my husband asked me when he saw me use an old-fashioned filter.

“Your relative said to use this, she swears by it,” I replied.

“But that is absurd,” was the reply. “You should do what is convenient to you.”

“Really?” I asked slyly. “Then why do you go all the way to that petrol pump outside the city every time?” He had the grace to look embarrassed. His cousin had recommended it. Once this fact was out in the open, we discussed things frankly. “I am scared all the time, no matter what I do,” I confessed. “I know that however careful I am, I am going to be offending somebody.”

“I know what you mean,” said hubby somberly. “But we just can’t go on this way. We have to take a stance and live our lives the way we think best. It has worked so far.”

From then on, we tried to make a conscious effort to try and think for ourselves, and make our own decisions. However, from time to time, I did fall off the wagon, as it were, and did things a certain way just because somebody approved it. One such decision was my strategy for finding a job in biotechnology in our local area.

“I’m going to go to the local University and ask about any biotech companies in the area. That nice cousin of yours said it was a good idea,” I announced the other day.

“Wait a minute,” objected my husband. “When I suggested the same thing, you said it would be too tedious. And which ‘nice cousin’ of mine are you talking about?”

“You should be happy that someone else thought your idea was a good one,” I scolded. “Don’t you remember the nice guy who came the other day at the same time as the provision store delivery?”

“That wasn’t my cousin. That was the fellow who shared the auto-driver’s seat.”

“Oh!” I was totally stymied. Then I recovered. “He must be the owner of the store or something like that. He had a lot of opinions.”

Two days later, my husband had the occasion to go back to that provision store. He sought me out on his return.

“That ‘nice guy’ who approved your job search isn’t the owner of the store. He doesn’t even work there. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t even live in our city. He is the cousin of the owner’s housemaid. He was just visiting the area for a couple of days.”

“What’s his profession?” I faltered.

“He is a basic services provider at an exclusive social networking site,” was the reply. But before I could rejoice came the clarification. “In other words, he wipes the tables at his village’s only tea shop.”
I stared at my man with a stricken look in my eyes. Had I sunk to seeking the approval of chai-shop boy in my overwhelming desire to fit in?

Seeing my sad state, my beloved took pity on me. “Don’t feel too bad,” he said. “That day, after delivering our provisions, he went next door. It seems he discussed a lot of things with our neighbors as well.

Remember that really expensive car they bought that is too big to fit into their parking space? They bought it on his recommendation.”

Lakshmi Palecanda recently moved from Montana to Mysore, India. She can be reached at lakshmi.palecanda@gmail.com.

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