Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Where is your Mother?"

On that day which I would like to erase from my memory, I went, as usual, into the Director’s room to sign the attendance muster as soon as I reached the Research Centre. The visiting professor from England was in Director’s room with his daughter, a young girl in her mid teens. The Director (my boss) asked me to take her around and introduce her to the other research scholars while he finished his business with the visitor.

I took her into the large spacious airy room where we research scholars sat. We sat down at the large common table in the centre of the hall so that others could join us as they came in. And then I turned to her with a friendly smile which she returned.

“How do you like Trivandrun?” I asked – the standard question, I know but I couldn’t think of anything original.
“Oh it’s a lovely place!”(I think she meant it). “I call it a city lost in trees”
‘Eh?”, I said surprised.

I began to think that she too must have read that travelogue written by I don’t remember who which had a chapter titled The Treemen of Travancore. I remember I was furious when I read it ‘cos in all the fifteen years that I lived (I was 15 when I read that piece,) I had never seen people in Travancore living on trees and eating tadpoles live.

“We have a room on the sixth floor” she explained “and when I look out of the window, I see only palm trees”.

Actually she was right. In those days there were only a handful of high rises in Trivandrum, and from the height from which she surveyed the city, a splendid view of greenery would greet her.

And then I made that fatal mistake.

“Has you mother come too?” I asked!

Oh, we Indians. Why do we always have to ask about father mother brother and sister every time we are introduced to a person? Why don’t we realize that it is impolite, for these questions are an intrusion into the personal sphere which many would like to keep private?

“No”, she said, without batting an eyelid. “My parents are divorced”

My ears were on fire. “I’m sorry”. I stammered.

“That’s OK. My step mother is here”.

I nodded, struggling to conceal my embarrassment behind a smile.

Just then my friend Aparna (name changed like all the names that’ll appear in the rest of the story).
“Hi, Milly. Good Morning”, she said.
“Meet Michelle Tate. Cleanth Tate’s daughter”
“How do you do?” said Aparna
“Hello” said Michelle
“Is this your first visit to India?”
”How long have you been in TVM?’
“WE came two days back.”
And then from Aparna‘s lips fell those deadly words.

“Where’s your mother? Has she come too?”

Michelle repeated what she told me. Aparna shot an annoyed look at me for not having warned her, but then, I didn’t get a chance to warn her. Besides, who ever thought that a great intellectual like Aparna would be stupid enough not to know that one should not ask such questions to a stranger, particularly if she is from another country and culture?

And then the one and only Bhasker walked in. He’s one of those characters who you’d call hyper - was always in a state of excitement. He saw Aparna and me with a white girl and came enthusiastically toward us.

“Hello. Who do we have here?” he said beaming at all of us.

I performed the introductions, and then he started his round of queries.

“First visit to India?”
“Yes” said Michelle, trying to sound and look friendly.
“It’s a beauuuuutiful place, isn’t it?” He had a soft soulful expression in his eyes. “Did you see the Taj Mahal”
“No. Not yet. We’ll visit North India next week”
‘Who’s the we?” asked Bhaskar.

Sensing that he was approaching the danger zone, I tried to edge closer so that I could give him a warning kick. But I didn’t move fast enough for out came The Question

“Has your mother come?”

“No”, a staccato tone. This time she didn’t offer any explanations.
“What is she? A career woman or a housewife?”, asked the incorrigible Bhaskar
“My mother is an archeologist”, said Michelle.

Did she sound tired? Did I hear something like a resigned sigh from her?

”Oh’, said Bhaskar. He was unstoppable. “Then it’d have been lovely if she could also have joined you, no?”
“Heavens no”, Michelle burst out. “There’d be such a row!”

Bhaskar looked stupefied and, with eyes like saucers, he looked from one to another. By then I had moved close enough to give him that kick.

Unfortunately, it was harder that I intended it to be and it landed on his shin. I think he was about to repeat the word ‘row’ with a rising intonation when my kick landed on his shin, and he let out a yelp starting with R. "What on earth are you doing Milly? Why did you kick me?” he yelled angrily at me.

I didn’t look at Michelle. I couldn’t face her. I didn’t look at Bhaskar. I didn’t trust myself. But I looked at Aparna in utter dismay.

And she rose to the occasion. She got up, not abruptly but as though it was the most natural thing to do after the first session comprising introductions, and offered to show Michelle around the place, an offer which the poor girl accepted gracefully.

After that awkward episode, I made a resolution never to ask a stranger personal questions. But I must admit that old habits die hard and on a few occasions I have slipped. But only on a couple of occasions did I ask the wrong questions to wrong people.


  1. I know it was not meant as a funny post, but I couldnt help laughing. Especially after the Bhaskar episode.

    Yes, this is something I have felt strongly about too. But in my case, when I am at the receiver's end. Especially now since the whole world took an interest in when my marriage was going to be!

    I think we should have a cultural sensitivity education in school, so we know what are the cans and cannots to be asked in a foreign country or even in your own!

  2. yes,i agree word to word with ms.cris. we indians tend to be nosy people..wanting to know who a guests parents/grandparents are...where we go to church(god forbid if you are an atheist) ..what your children do( and oh,if you dont have them ,why you dont??

  3. Cultural differences. What else? :)

  4. Nice share. I think we are basically stuck for topics to talk, so we try to find a common ground with people and make them feel comfortable and welcome. But unfortunately, we make them feel "uncomfortable" with the whole prying & interrogation process!

    By the way m'am, i'm an ol' student of yours (don't try wrackin' your brain,u don't remember me). Nw workin with chinny!

  5. Hello,
    I came here through Cris’s World. Nice blog!
    Now to comment on this entry- Recently I had a similar experience. I happened to talk with an American black girl, probably in her late teens. And in my effort to seem friendly I popped up some wrong questions at her. I could have stopped with just one wrong question. But I ended up asking couple of them (stupid me!), one after the other, each one to make up for the previous one. They all turned out bad! Apparently her parents were also divorced and she only had a step brother with whom she didn’t have any contact. Added to all this she lived alone away from her mother (only person she is in touch with from her family). My questions were perfect for a first-time-talk or so I felt until that day. I hope I won’t make such mistakes again!

  6. Coincidence of sorts, just as Michelle was badgered about her missing mother ( What a hilarious tale!), I have a story about a real missing mother up today!

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Hi,
    Again a fine piece. Yup we have this in us, the moment we meet someoene starts the barrage of questions that ranges from which clan to how old your great granny was when she left for heavenly abode? A few years back Jug Suraiyya in his column in Sunday Times wrote a piece about this. At a get to gether he was asked 'How many kids you've'? when he replied in negative, he was asked a hell lot of querries and was even given a few adresses of quacks who were claimed to cure impotency. Hillarious it was.
    And your post, though a bit serious, again turned out to be fine writing. Keep up the good work. Kudos!

  10. second half was full of laugh laugh! But sorry abt ur embarrassment.

  11. Nice read :) It is a part of desi culture to ask personal questions as a matter of introduction so we never think it's unnatural. Siblings, parents, I can take. A colleague of my mother's quit her job because the entire workforce was treating her to one big course of How To Have a Baby (she was two years into her marriage and childless, an irresistible topic for all and sundry). I don't know if one's career choice is considered a personal thing or not, but I get tired of hearing a different version of Why Medicine is the Best Career Choice from every single soul I meet.

  12. Some Malayalees specialise in asking about religion and caste within 5 minutes of introduction to other Malayalees. I hope they won't ask this to others :-)

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. @ jennifer
    'no space for spontanaiety' would be the ideal title for this article.i agree with u - chinese shud b able to act like themselves in their own land.
    however, i appreciate a few of the pre-olypics prep - like training people not to spit, not ask intrusive question- india can take a leaf out of the chinese book on these issues.
    @ all
    thanks for the response. nice to see people agrreing with you:-)
    read ur post. can imagine ur panic-hae had this experience myself too.

  16. @jennifer

    But Jen, come on, this is the Olympics. An Olympics is an international event, and hence it is expected that people should conform to international standards. If this advice was meted out to citizens in general, then I agree it may not be appropriate.

    Now, I live and work in New Hampshire. I cannot expect people in NH to acknowledge my Indianness everywhere, but if an NH city was to host an international India festival, then I think it would be fair on the NH town's part to be at least familiar with some of India's customs. Like not serving beef, or having a vegetarian option at the community centers! What do you think?



Dear visitors, dont run away without leaving behind something for me :-)
By the way, if your comment does not get posted at the first click, just click once more.