All of us can cite names of friends who regard us with great affection but not many can give an instance of a friend who holds one in contempt.
I can! I know a girl of great charm and refinement who viewed me as the greatest savage let loose on the streets. And yet our chats were all the more friendly and gay; so gay that I realized that it was just a veneer of cordiality beneath which she hid her great distaste for me.
We began on the wrong note. When a common friend introduced us I was far too preoccupied with my thoughts to pay much attention to her. Some days later we were having a chat when I spotted one of my friends coming our way. “Hey Alok”, I yelled and she positively winced at that. I met Alok heartily and said, “Long time, no see”. Again she shuddered at my use of pidgin English. Next trying to be civil, I began the introductions. I said, “Well Alok this is Ms. .. er Ms..” It was then that I realized that I didn’t even remember her name. And yet I continued, much to the embarrassment of the two, “Look, I forgot your name. So then what is it?” She gave me an icy stare and introduced herself directly to Alok.
We continued to meet quite often; more so because we shared a common friend than any common interests I reckon. And the situation turned from bad to worse. You see I am considered to be coarse and common by most high brows. I speak my mind frankly, often punctuate my speech with ‘Damn it’ and ‘Bloodies’ and she was scandalized. Invective and profanities were a strict ‘no-no’ for her.
Next I am no respecter of tradition and historic pre-eminence. Even as a child I used to pronounce ‘Island’ as ‘I-S-L-A-N-D’ and I never felt disgraced. Rather I blamed the English language. So one day when I met her when she seemed all thrilled and kind of ‘walking-on-the-air’ I was wondering whether I should ask the reason. But she was really happy and announced with a big smile, “My father presented me a Piaget,” “What is a Piaget?” I asked rather innocently and pronouncing it as ‘P-I-A-G-E-T’. She seemed to be shocked to learn that I wasn’t aware about the pioneers and one of the finest Swiss watchmakers in the world.
At college our popular past time was to bunk lectures and to go for movies. Naturally she preferred English films and only a select few Hindi films met her approval. And so recently when one of my friends suggested that we watch the Govinda starrer, ‘Deewana Mastana’, she just blanched and I knew at once that she felt that such a thing was just not done.
But she was not as much of an incorrigible snob as I was a poor slob. It was just that she felt strongly that gentility and poise are an integral part of a refined personality while I was always opening my mouth to put my foot in. I had an uncanny knack for making the most inappropriate remarks. The British call them ‘Clanger’ and I dropped them by a dime-a-dozen.
The last time I met her, she said that she was going to England for her higher studies. I congratulated her and there was a general lull in the conversation. It seemed as if neither of us had much to say and the silence was deafening. I am always troubled by such moments and don’t quite know how others manage to live through them. So I remarked, “I hear it is a cinch to get admission to these British Universities, for after all you finance yourself anyway.” It was quieter than it would have been in a tomb.
And then she smiled indulgently and said, “That was refreshingly frank of you, Vijay.” And I knew then that my latest faux pas had cost me a friend. Still au revoir, dear friend, and I will surely miss you.
I wish I could have an indulgent smile while re-reading this article that was published in ‘The Middle’ column on Nov 24, 1997 in ‘Maharashtra Herald’ in Pune, India. In classic terms the exchange can be understood in the context of an interaction between two young souls coming from disparate class backgrounds in a society.
And yet the subtext to it is a bit deeper wherein I cannot reconcile myself to David Frost’s famous quote, ‘Diplomacy is the art of letting somebody else have your way.’ I remain a guy who loves to ‘call a spade by its very name’ and have spoken my mind openly. It works in the long run as people are smart and mostly can read your moves well for sure. And it is a necessarily evil in my line of work of being an auditor.
Truly it has taken me many years to appreciate that all of us have our own view of the world shaped much by our early childhood and upbringing, possibly broadened further by education, reading, travel and interest in places and people. Nonetheless I cannot live down my signature style – I just hope that I deliver my criticism of ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘wishy-washy’ ideas more effectively by being gentle and polite in my approach.