“Kitni Salary Hai?” Questions Indians Need to Stop Asking Strangers

Humour

“Kitni Salary Hai?” Questions Indians Need to Stop Asking Strangers

Illustration: Arati Gujar

T

he most dreaded species on this planet is the over-friendly nosy neighbour. The uncle or aunty can usually be spotted sitting on a charpai outside their house, sunning their derriere, and furiously shelling peas or pretending to dry the towel. As you meander through narrow alleys, hopping like a cute bunny over puddles of water under laundry lines, and narrowly missing making a rangoli with dog poop, watch out for their daughter-in-law, who keeps the house clean by emptying all the rubbish out of the window. She’s waiting to throw it at you. Uncle ji and aunty ji, meanwhile, will stare you down with one eye, the second firmly fixed on their sun-drying jar of achaar. 

Nobody knows when the entire neighbourhood got together to pass a motion to elevate Her Ladyship and His Lordship to the post of Aunty and Uncle. All we know is this has been their full-time vocation since the time you were running around in your pink chaddis. And that when you spot them, you don’t make the mistake of stopping. I’ll tell you why in a minute. 

Nobody knows when the entire neighbourhood got together to pass a motion to elevate Her Ladyship and His Lordship to the post of Aunty and Uncle.

These we-want-to-know-it-all neighbours come in several varieties. There’s the Pammi Aunty, who loves her velvet suits come rain come shine. There’s Gol Uncle, who’s famous for his fetish for using up all of Delhi’s precious groundwater to clean his courtyard. Banerjee Aunty who appears only when there’s a gas delivery, to holler, “Gash oaala, oopar aa jao” from her balcony. But despite these differences, they have one thing in common — asking the most inappropriate questions to strangers and an unwavering dedication to excavate juicy details of your past, present, and future. 

And that’s why you shouldn’t stop in front of them, even though you are covered in rotting banana peels. If you do, it will take all of five minutes before they find out why you had to visit your gynaec last week. Exactly two hours later even your granduncle who died last month of boredom, will know you have Chlamydia. If you happen to be introduced to Pammi Aunty’s husband at Sarita’s 20th anniversary of her 30th birthday, he will have the details of your tax returns for the last five years. Three samosas and a kachori later, he’ll know how much you paid for the Ford parked in the garage, but only after dispensing gyaan on why second-hand cars are always better buys. 

Exactly two hours later even your granduncle who died last month of boredom, will know you have Chlamydia.

All these conversations start innocuously, a build up to the eventual interrogation. Something like, “How pretty you were looking in that dress when you were waiting for your Uber last evening.” Suddenly, five seconds later, he wants to know why you were alone and not with your husband. Since you are too embarrassed to say “none of your fucking business”, you’ll oblige with a response. Now that he’s sure that you’re a polite person — unlike Mrs Gupta’s “nakchadi” beti Chinkie — Pammi Aunty will step in and ask you why you don’t have a baby yet. “Is your marriage going okay?” She’s now looking at you with her eyebrows arranged in a neat question mark. It must be because you are not having enough sex, she concludes. How can you, when you are out most nights?

Many years ago, when my husband and I first moved into a rented house in a typical middle-class Delhi neighbourhood, the owners invited us over for tea. It took us only a few minutes to realise that we were not over for chai but only charcha, actually it was more of an interrogation. After all, how can you share your house with a couple and their child until you know how old the woman is, how much the couple makes every month, whether their phone bills are footed by their employer, or how the maid keeps herself occupied when they’re not at home? Of course these are all mandatory questions to ask someone you’ve met for the first time.

In India every annoyingly personal question that is dropped on your lap has a purpose. It is to find out your aukaat, and whether it is capable of yielding dividends to your interrogator. How can they be breathing the same air with a person they’ve just met without knowing their place in the social hierarchy? Nope, not until they know your dad is a bureaucrat who has property in Civil Lines (deduction: “old money”), or your educational background (St Stephens? Hai! She’ll be perfect for Minnie maasi’s thrice-removed cousin who farts loudly and can only cook Maggi), will they be comfortable around you. Once this vital information has been extracted, you will end up in a box marked either “useless”, “priceless” or “can’t decide yet”. And you’ll be treated accordingly — with respect, easy camaraderie, or as yesterday’s garbage, tossed out in a bag by pea-shelling aunt’s bahu.

It took us only a few minutes to realise that we were not over for chai but only charcha, actually it was more of an interrogation.

If you think it’s just the uncles and aunties who are guilty of this behaviour, let me assure you, you and I are no different. Our questions may differ (we’ll ask about schooling, the city someone grew up in, where they work) but by the end of the Q&A session we’ve already made up our minds about whether the stranger we’ve just met is worthy of our attention. Even when we are not asking questions, we are judging people by the way they dress, their felicity with the Queen’s language, and their last holiday destination. We are all guilty of putting our acquaintances in neat boxes of lazy stereotypes, because hell, why defer our judgement, just to know a person better? Ugh.

Still there are times when it gets hard to deal with the constant questioning. What does it matter if I play the drums and electric guitar, Mrs Bansal? I’m never going to be louder than your child watching Chotta Bheem on Volume 100. Sometimes it seems like the only genuine people around are those aloof ones who prefer their headphones to the sound of your voice, and have no interest in your background, foreground, or playground. In this age of constant questioning, disinterest seems like the truest virtue.

Comments