Kabhi Haan, Mostly Naa: Why Indian Girls Should Learn to Say “No” to Family

Social Commentary

Kabhi Haan, Mostly Naa: Why Indian Girls Should Learn to Say “No” to Family

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

“Just say NO,” I remember my best friend telling me with exasperation over a panicked midnight phone call some seven-odd years ago. We were, of course, discussing the male lead in yet another one of my parents’ increasingly insistent productions to ensure that I get married and produce precisely two grandkids before my lady parts were deemed too old and wrinkly by society. Why two, you ask? Because one is “just lazy” and three would be the sign of “poor planning” by a pair of “sex-crazed maniacs”, but two is exactly the right side of “respectable” – my mother had instructed me the first time what is known as a “bio-data” in the the arranged marriage market, landed in my inbox.

It was time for me to pick a stranger to copulate with, and I had the whole family’s blessings to do it.

It was time for me to pick a stranger to copulate with, and I had the whole family’s blessings to do it.

Just. Say. No. It seems like a logical enough advice to give to someone who really doesn’t want to do something. And I cannot emphasise how much I didn’t want to be married at 25. But saying “no” was not a concept I was too familiar with, especially when it was family at the receiving end of that sound of betrayal. Sure, I had learned to mumble a barely coherent, cajoling “no” to low-stakes demands like being asked to take a week off to attend a third cousin’s wedding in a remote town in Haryana despite never having laid eyes on said cousin. But as a general principle, until recently, I had a tough time denying my family anything — even when what was being asked of me bordered on the ridiculous.

Part of the reason was patriarchy, of course, a gift that keeps on giving. When you grow up in a household where a cluster of strict, not-used-to-hearing-no men make the rules and decide what’s acceptable behaviour for the women of the house, you learn very early in life that you gain a lot more ground by pandering to their benevolent but unintelligent sexism than by digging your heels. While the boys were groomed to make their will known from a young age, even if it sometimes meant making things awkward for the rest of the family, the girls were taught to preen and be demure. The hypocrisy is timeless, a true-blue classic rock hit of patriarchy. So I learned how to negotiate like a pro, but the self-affirming lesson of saying no eluded me until very recently.

The other, more humbling reason is that deep down, I’m a wuss, to put it delicately. I hate confrontations and ugly showdowns. Left to my devices, I’d probably seethe internally until I die than disappoint the people I care for. Which is why I often found myself playing tour guide to distant family members during the day and pulling all-nighters to catch up with the writing I really shouldn’t have de-prioritised. From dancing in more sangeets than I cared to attend, to driving a carful of yawping tweens to Essel World, over the years, I’ve agreed to a number of mind-numbing and energy-sapping tasks that everyone else in the family had the fortitude (and good sense) to decline.

All that changed last year. Like for many conservative Hindu households that had the misfortune of being cursed with liberal and open-minded spawn, dinner-table conversations these days have been a nightmare for my family, and an ordeal to get through. Despite my conflict-averse, wussy constitution, it was impossible to digest the steady diet of misinformation being fed to families like mine with increasing relish on the gilded platter that is the politics of hatred, as 2019 and elections loomed over the horizon.

The Hindu Rashtra narrative finally gave me the courage to spin up and learn to say no to my family. No, no, no, I thundered at uncles and cousins who quoted patently untrue WhatsApp forwards as political fact. No, I glared at anyone who tried to tell my brother, a first-time voter, who he should vote for. It may not have led to a dramatic, sea change in my family, but the flicker of shame and wariness on some of their faces when they heard something bizarre from the intellectually bankrupt “admins” of the WhatsApp groups that fire off such messages brought me a great degree of solace.

But the tipping point in my learning-to-say-no journey came when I made a painful chance discovery: I found out that someone very close to my family, and someone I was extremely fond of, was a wife-beater. That he had been physically abusive for almost all of the 20 years he’d been married to his wife. I also learned that everyone in my family knew and disapproved, but his violence hadn’t been reason enough for him to stop being welcome in all our homes. The day I found out, my parents were meant to host him for a week. I said no, I won’t be under the same roof as him — they could either host a violent man and have me leave home, or close our doors to him forever. Many tears, slamming doors, and shouting matches later, I was banished to my room, emotionally exhausted, but victorious. Uncle A will never again be seen at any of our family gatherings, or pose as an honorary member in our family photographs.

Now that I don’t break into hives at the mere thought of the ensuing unpleasantness when one says no to family, I can vouch for this: There is incredible relief to be felt in empowering yourself with the ability to deny nonsensical, manipulative, or exploitative requests. And let’s face it, family really is the most extortionist among the emotional terrorists of our lives. Almost every article that urges people, especially women, who struggle with saying no quotes research that has found it’s more liberating to say an emphatic “I don’t” instead of a conciliatory “I can’t”, which can give the more persistent favour-asking leeches the impression that there is room for negotiation in the conversation.

It’s not easy, but it’s true. Who would’ve thought that even for a grown woman, one of the toughest to master life lessons is going to be the ability to mutter a blunt, monosyllabic “no”. Not a half-hearted “not likely”, or a non-committal “I doubt it” or “maybe”, or the deliciously ambiguous “I’ll try”. Just a simple, unequivocal, this is not open for further discussion “no”.