Kabhi Haan, Never Naa: When You Lack the Art of Saying No


Kabhi Haan, Never Naa: When You Lack the Art of Saying No

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Last week, my friend from college, whose LinkedIn bio proudly announces that she is in a “complicated relationship with employment”, made an impromptu plan for Ladies’ Night on a hectic Wednesday. About five minutes before her Uber arrived to ferry her to her chosen pub in the badlands of Andheri, she remembered to invite me. Instead of asking whether I was free to join, she just ordered me to show up, “Let’s go get some sushi and cocktails yo, it’s Ladies’ Night!”A pause followed her query until I meekly said, “Sure, that sounds exciting, let’s go!” Worried that my reply wasn’t enthusiastic enough, I overcompensated by following it up with a text comprising a mildly disturbing amount of emojis.

This phone call would have made for ordinary conversation had I not been thinking all this while, “Sure, who wouldn’t want to be dreadfully hungover after a night of binge-drinking, and be disastrously unproductive the next day at work?” I know what you must be wondering: Why did I agree to a plan that I am as enthused about as Sarfaraz Ahmed was during the India-Pakistan match? Let me explain: As it turns out, I suffer from a somewhat life-threatening condition called No-monia that renders me incapable of saying “no”.

I’ve been afflicted with this condition for as long as I can remember. Initially, it started out small, like not being able to turn down a request that would pose a minor inconvenience to my life. Back when I was 15, I remember cancelling a weekend getaway with my parents that I had been excited about for the whole month, just to sit through a three-hour-long World War I documentary that a friend wanted to watch. Since then, my condition has only taken a turn for the worse. In college, my inability to say no led to me staying up nights doing assignments for a classmate I was as fond of as Salman Khan is of Vivek Oberoi. If you think, things would have changed a decade later, allow me to prove you wrong. During my last visit to the salon, I shelled out half my salary on products that I’m certain I do not need because I could not turn down my hairstylist, and each time I go shopping I come home broke because I am unable to say no to the over-enthusiastic salespeople. And don’t even get me started about the number of times I’ve been dragged into doing something I objectively detest. It is just shameful.

Yet the worst consequence of my acute phobia of letting people down with a one syllable, two-tiny lettered word remains the scenario when I somehow found myself dating three people at the same time because I couldn’t break up with either. Once when I called up one of them to break the news, it inexplicably led to a 30-minute conversation that ended up implying that I totally envision a future with him that includes, among other things, marital bliss. Eventually, I did manage to break up with two of the men, but since directness isn’t exactly my strong suit, the excuse that I gave both of them was that I am moving cities. Incidentally, it was also the same excuse I used when I needed to change my dabbawala. Not a day passes by when I don’t regret that break up.

Suddenly, I can’t seem to recall too many instances of my grandma, aunts, and sisters expressly uttering a categorical “no”.

Initially, I thought that my inability to say no stemmed from the fact that I was simply trying too hard to not hurt people’s feelings. But it didn’t take long for it to turn me into a habitual liar. Suddenly, I went from someone who had trouble admitting the truth to constructing elaborate lies to conceal, camouflage, or even overturn, the truth. But over the years, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying not just to fix my annoying condition, but also to understand its underlying cause.

For a long time, I blamed it upon social awkwardness. That coupled with the insecurities of being an introvert invariably made me a people pleaser, I often told myself. As someone who grew up with a small group of friends, I’ve perpetually been afraid of being disliked. And so, I unquestionably continued prioritising the needs of others over my own. I’ve taken up more assignments than I can handle, I’ve paid bills for people who said they will pay me back when I know that they never will. Just so that people like me enough to be friends with me. Just so that I didn’t have to be alone. Agreeing with people has always been my defence mechanism. An essay on The New York Times titled “Why You Should Learn to Say No” puts this in perspective, “Humans are social animals who thrive on reciprocity. It’s in our nature to be socially obliging, and the word no feels like a confrontation that threatens a potential bond. But when we dole out an easy yes, instead of a difficult no, we tend to overcommit our time, energy, and finances.”

But, something changed when I recently witnessed my mother struggle with asserting the same word that has held me as its prisoner too for all these years: no. It’s only then that it struck me how deep this pernicious river really runs. Sure, it was about me and my steadfast refusal to stand up for myself, and I had assumed that that’s all there was to it, but could it also be a condition that most women suffer from, more than our men do? Suddenly, I can’t seem to recall too many instances of my grandma, aunts, and sisters expressly uttering a categorical “no”. Instead, I’ve grown up watching them being their submissive selves – unknowingly internalising it every time they ended up doing something they didn’t want to.

It’s no surprise then, that a generation later, the women around me rely a little too unhealthily on inventing shortcuts to suggest that they are declining instead of actually saying the dreaded word. My life is, in fact, proof of the irreversible effects that No-monia can have on you: I seem to have gone through an entire adult life flitting between guilt and exhaustion simply because my mind wouldn’t stop jumping to conclusions if I even imagined valuing my own time and effort over the needs of others. I used to think that saying this word would leave me behind, but in doing so, I forgot to account for one thing: What if saying no actually set me free?