From the discomfort zone: What will people say?

In India’s contemporary situation having an affair need not translate to marriage, an area that’s not under control.

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Published: November 30, 2014 12:49 am
 Her core investigation of boys and the big dilemma that comes to her mind when she feels romantically inclined is, “What will others say?”. Her core investigation of boys and the big dilemma that comes to her mind when she feels romantically inclined is, “What will others say?”.

Our society’s most killing missile that prevents us from taking ownership of our lives is to wonder at every step what others will say. Nandita, a highly educated, 24-year-old working woman, was telling me that her parents will not object to her possible love marriage. Yet they and close family members have overdosed her to be very conscious about whom to choose, otherwise “What will people say?”. Her core investigation of boys and the big dilemma that comes to her mind when she feels romantically inclined is, “What will others say?”. She was expressing that, by nature, she will not go against her parents in choosing a boyfriend, which amounts to following a pre-determined pattern of who should be her ideal husband.

In India’s contemporary situation, she explained in a matter-of-fact way, having an affair need not translate to marriage, an area that’s not under her control.

Somehow she was realising her inner emotional content is getting disturbed. She said she has time up to age 27, but her conversation became indifferent, “With all my restrictions, I may fail in a love marriage, so I have to depend on my parents to find me a bridegroom”.

While I was doing some research in an Indian village, a farmer’s son told me their two-acre land gave them Rs 50,000, while Rs 20,000 was spent on input costs. With Rs 30,000 a year it was impossible to run their seven-member family. On his own initiative, he bought a small motorbike and became a mobile barber, going to people’s houses to earn money. This brought him nearly Rs 15,000 per month. But his relatives wanted to disassociate with him. Why? Because they are Brahmins and he was “defiling” the family’s image by pursuing a lower-caste job.

I really appreciate this courageous spirit of today’s young generation not caring about what people say. After the research, I went to his house and found the family living conditions quite comfortable with the money he brought in. He showed me his barber kit. His parents were despondent, wondering how they would get a Brahmin girl for him because his entrepreneurship was not acceptable in their community.

My own barrier was not so different. When Mr Jacques Gourdon, owner of the lithography printshop near Paris, very kindly offered me a sweeping job in 1974, I was totally shocked. It was unimaginable. I was from a Bengali bodhiya family. We were extremely poor in India, lived in a refugee colony. But how could I be a sweeper? I’d just arrived in France, knew no French, was penniless and without any job prospect. My growling stomach quickly won over my cultural blocks. I de-conditioned my Indian caste conscious baggage, and graciously accepted the job.
But more mental torture awaited me. My job entailed taking six big dustbins full of used ink-cleaning cloth and papers out from my printshop to the road at the end of each working day. That immediately traumatised me. “What if someone saw me?”.

That this instant fear was ridiculous did not occur to me then. Just imagine the kind of complex I was carrying in my head. Nobody knew me in France then, which Indian would see me or even wonder who I was? How can any acquaintance or neighbour from my Indian village ever know I was here that I had to be careful of “What will they say?”. But psychologically I was very disturbed. Lots of cars and buses plied on the main road, so every time I went outside the door with my dustbins, I used to hide my face to not be recognised as a sweeper.

After some time, I discovered this anguish to be totally absurd when I found Mr Gourdon was respectfully presenting me to other artists who came to the printshop as a painter from Calcutta. He’d even promote my paintings so I could make some extra money. The artists who’d come to the printshop to make their lithographs never looked down at my sweeping work like we tend to do in India.

That broke my whole misconception of what other people might think. I started to boldly say then that my occupation was a sweeper while I was a painter.

My morale was boosted when fellow students at my Parisian art college appreciated that I worked hard to support my education and livelihood while undermining themselves that they were studying with their fathers’ money. So I learnt that worrying about what others will say is the most indecent social education system in our country because it puts you in a cage you cannot break free from.

Just imagine, a cobbler in our country is considered the lowest caste mochi. I remember even in my poverty-stricken childhood, my grandmother never allowed me to touch the cobbler when he came to repair a broken sandal. After he left, the place he occupied was cleaned with water. Does it mean our cobbler has no chance of becoming a Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo, the celebrated shoe designers whose hand everyone wants to shake?

“Hats off to you! You don’t care what others will say”, is what people in India often tell me about the bright, holiday colours I wear to work to meet top global corporate managers. Actually I started wearing such colours in France to differentiate myself from the high-flying CEOs I had to mingle with, and didn’t really pay heed to this habit. Until I recently met Nandita and discovered the gravity of the words, “What will people say?”.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management.
Reach him at

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  1. H
    Harneet Brar
    Nov 30, 2014 at 2:06 am
    I agree wheartedly with the view put forward by the author. We in India move through the motions with only one eye on the road of our lives.The other is always looking at others , and what they say about us and our actions. I want to 'grow up' and live as I wish, and do that which is right , rather than fret over others' perceptions of my deeds.
    1. N
      Neha Tiwari
      Dec 3, 2014 at 12:01 pm
      'What people will say ' is the disease we Indians are most badly suffering from . Right from our childhood we start hearing these words from our gmothers,fathers,uncles ,aunts and our parents.Everything that you do can come under the scanner of 'What people will say' small towns when you step of the house wearing Jeans ,comes ''What people will say' ....U being from supposedly an upper cl family be friends with someone from a lower caste family will be chased by a ''What people will say' , if you marry someione you love you will hear voices of your relatives in your head ''What people will say'',''What people will say'' and by God's grace if you happen to have fallen for someone out of your community ....I need not say it already know what would happen :(But in all this ''What people will say'' , Mr Shombit Sengupta ,you have really put up a very inspiring story,and i hope ,young Indians and their old parents would learn something and before taking some action the youth would not think of what people would say but try to know want his/her heart wants !!!!
      1. R
        Nov 30, 2014 at 6:46 am
        Mind blowing analysis. Just never thought that our indoctrination is making so much paranoid about what others will say rather than what I feel?
        1. K
          Nov 30, 2014 at 5:32 pm
          this article is so good, Indian Express online brethren, i want to ask, why their is no option to like by my facebook account to this article. i wish to share it with my friends.
          1. S
            Nov 30, 2014 at 5:04 am
            Superb piece and as a Tambrahm i can easily relate to it. I lived in the IIT Madras campus as my dad taught there. We had servants' quarters right next door so that maids lived nearby. My mixing with their kids to play marbles or tops or cricket was something that would usually be frowned upon but my mom surprisingly despite being from semi urban TN was quite ok with. Of course bringing them home was a different issue but many kids were discouraged from even playing with the maids' kids.Sombit though sees this as only a caste obsession, and while he does not say so, a caste Hindu obsession. There i would beg to differ. Rich Syrian Christians while parochial in giving the servants ' quarters only to other Christians did not encourage their kids mixing with the Christian servants' kids at all. The servants usually were 2nd or 3rd generation converts from areas like Nagercoil or Kanyakumari who were not "Khandaani" like Syrian Christians.Caste is but a formalization of economic boundaries in most cases. Arguably that may not apply to aboriginal tribals who were ethnically different too but that is not true in the main. So while Sombit is quite correct in pointing out caste based taboos, in the interests of intellectual consistency he ought to point out it is a malaise for all religions.As parents most if us worry about our kids getting into happy marriages. In that regard seeing caste or other fault lines as markers of atudes, food habits, respect for family values etc., is not an entirely illegitimate option. Sure we will listen if our kids have serious interest in a boy outside those markers but would be extra careful to check on the boy's habits and atudes etc. Liberals who would decry such a practise dont realize that we all generalize at some level in all aspects of life, often unconsciously, because the brain cant process too much data and will take to generalization as an optimization technique. Even a liberal would feel uncomfortable if say she was walking down a slightly deserted Delhi road at dusk and suddenly a car with boys dressed in bling with the stereo blaring beats slowed down near her because she would ume they were trouble. Maybe they are just slowing to ask directions but would she take a chance? No and rightfully so but her generalization of men and those boys is no better or worse than say i feeling nervous if my daughter brought home say a Muslim boyfriend from Old Delhi. Cant justify one and excoriate the other... In both cases there is perceived danger. One may be more immediate than the other but a danger all the same. If someone were to point out that the girl's case is different because of immediacy of danger let me relax the condition a bit and say she is being approached by same guys in the same car with music outside her college in full view of her friends. Will she suddenly not ume they are trouble? No and again rightfully so. As Washington once said "Keep your trust in God and your gunpowder dry.".
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