Have you been at the receiving end of a question which has no answer? Have you been been stung by a question which is not a question but a statement in itself? Have you been asked a question so powerful that it has taken the wind out your lungs and almost choked you? Have you been hit so hard by a question, that you recoiled at how mere words can have the effect of a physical blow?
Of course we all have and I am not talking or a viva voce of a 12th standard exam where the examiner grills you about the laws of quantum physics or the anatomy of a frog brain.
This is the viva of day-to-day life, where we women interact with other women – women who are our ‘friends’, women who are acquaintances, women we meet socially or just random women who flit in and out of our lives, who just ask, ask , ask – without waiting for an answer, without wanting a response, without knowing us, without a thought.
Since we women speak mostly to other women and love to talk among other things, we ask a lot of questions – all playfully, unintentionally of course!
In an attempt to make small talk we women and men too, ask questions – as fillers, as conversation starters, as ice breakers … heart-breakers?
In 12th standard exams, we used to have a booklet called ’21 questions’- questions likely to be asked in the exams.
Here is my list of 21 questions women ask each other; questions that are questioning, investigating, probing, scrutinising. Questions that do not end with a question mark, but actually with a few exclamation marks. Questions that are statements. Questions that end in tears. Private tears!
Here is my list of 21 questions that one woman should not ask another.
“When is the good news?”
‘Good news’ as in “when are you getting married?” or ” When are you getting pregnant?” The most prying, inquisitive question of all. Is there an answer? I don’t know. A few days down the line, you recover from it and think of clever answers you could have given that woman who hurled it at you. Too late!
The ‘good news’ question is designed to make the toughest among us tongue-tied and speechless as we cower guiltily at our failure in delivering the ‘good news’. We glower in shame at not being able to give the ‘good news’ that is expected of us. Nope, that new job you started doesn’t count as ‘good news’, neither does that degree you acquired last year after months of hard toil.
“Have you put on weight?”
Why oh why does anyone need to know this? You may have put on a few milligrams or a few kilograms. How does it concern the questioner?
Wish you could counter this question with positive questions such as “Are you going to buy me a new wardrobe darling?” Or “Are you just admiring my new curves?” However, you squirm shamefully, hopelessly pulling in that tummy fat, pinching those love handles, sucking in the armpit fat as if that is possible and rue the last time you ate a gulab-jamun, swearing never to go near a dessert again.
The question haunts you as you struggle with your post-delivery hormones or menopause hormones or for that matter any womanly hormones that misbehave and no diet fads help either. The question destroys the self esteem that took a recent beating and just got back on track. Why couldn’t the questioner admire your well-filled out glowing cheeks and say you looked happy? Or just say nothing. You promise yourself to go running tomorrow, eat one chapati less and hope that Ms. Question Queen will be pleased with your weight loss. As if she is going to notice the 200 grams you have lost, but you will try. Oh yes you will. You will do what it takes….with tears in your eyes.
“Have you lost weight?”
Now surely this is a harmless question? Losing weight is great, isn’t it? We are all on that losing weight bandwagon. We all want to lose, lose, lose until we get into those impossibly stitched skinny jeans that make our thighs look like sausages and need scissors to take off . But that is another story!
So ‘Have you lost weight?” is a great question. Or is it? Hmmmm, why is it that this question is always asked to someone who is already slender and a little underweight anyway? Rubbing it in, tormenting- “haha you look thinner” is what it implies. Ask anyone who has problems gaining weight – believe it or not there are plenty of us grappling with weight issues on the other side of scale.
Putting on weight is not as easy as stuffing a samosa in the mouth. It takes years to pile on a few micrograms, but in those few seconds the questioner thinks nothing of it and rebukes you with a reminder of how thin you are, how imperfect, how inadequate.
Yup, you will go stuff yourself even if it makes you sick, you will gorge on ghee, wear a few extra layers, wear padding, maybe even go underground and hibernate… until the day you put on a few kilograms to appease Ms Perfect who is prowling around with a magnifying glass with a built-in weighing scale that weighs even the smallest of bacteria and advises them to put on more weight… aiming for perfection.
Is Ms. Perfect inviting you around to hers for breakfast, lunch or dinner, so she can feed you? Fat chance! Does it ever occur to Ms Perfect that there could be a medical reason for weight loss? If it does, you will get a free lecture on her hypothesis of the investigations,treatment, medication etc you should be on. Never mind that she has zero medical knowledge and even is she did, it matters little that it is unsolicited advice that she is freely and publicly doling out. Your medical history is up for public consumption, so get ready for being held up like an exhibit. This question makes you feel like a diseased liver specimen sitting in a formalin bottle in some smelly lab, watched in awe and disgust by medical students.
“Why are you looking tired?”
Another dreaded one. You just got ready, washed your hair, used new deo, fresh talcum powder. You put on that new dress. You make an effort. You step out for a breath of fresh air.You run into the lady in the lift. And then BOOM. “Why are you looking tired?” says one woman to another.
Whoah! Didn’t expect that! “Tired?” You ask. She clucks with glee in disapproval. “Yes, you have dark circles” Oops yes. You think of explanations, excuses, apologies. Your child’s viral fever last week – sleepless nights of worrying and placing damp cloths on a hot feverish forehead has obviously taken it’s toll. No, maybe it was that heavy period you had last month. Tired, tired, tired!
“Yes I look like a panda.” You try to joke weakly while Ms Question smirks and watches you crumble to pieces. Is she going to make you a cup of coffee to destress you? Is she going to give you a free massage coupon? Think not. Yet that one minute in the lift is all it took to make you dizzy and want to go back home, dark circles, under-eye bags in tow, while Ms Question exits the lift without looking back at you. By the way, does she even know your name?
“No brother? Only sisters?”
Whew! Who knew you would have pay for your parents’ inability to have that coveted male-offspring, 40 plus years after you were born? You feel sorry for your mother for the taunts she must have endured in her days and realise that the dinosaurs who taunted her are very much alive and kicking, asking those very same questions.
Ah! what a relief it must be to have a brother! Alas! you will never know what privileges it brings… But you do know the question, and the answer is usually is a simple yes. An apology for something that didn’t happen those many years ago. An admittance of what you missed in life, a life incomplete without a male sibling. (??!!)
“No son? Only daughter?”
This is similar to the above question except that this time you owe a better explanation for having no son. Are you able to provide an excuse? How could you stop at a daughter? Why didn’t you keep going until you produced a son?
You have to keep ‘trying’ whatever that means. Different positions? Certain days of the year more productive for male offspring, perhaps? A scientific discovery waiting to be made by you? Some magic potion that the begetters of sons know of and somehow you weren’t told of it?
And then what better way of reminding you that you have nobody in your old age to look after poor you and your husband, who obviously does not have anything to do with the male-female offspring equation!
“Has your daughter started her periods?”
Shocking! But true. Subtlety is extinct, manners were never there. Imagine being asked this question by educated women in a concerned tone, as if something terrible has happened – a calamity to be dealt with calm.
You think to yourself – how clever these women are. Diagnosing puberty just like that and then having the audacity to actually ask details. They would never ask if your daughter started algebra in school or if she plays badminton in the evenings. But then none of it is as interesting as starting periods, is it? You reel from the shock of that question and then a few days later, think of clever retorts. You plan revenge – you will ask about her daughter too, then admonish yourself for stooping so low. You plan vendetta- you will ask if her son has reached puberty… in a few years. That is revolting – you tell yourself. You sigh in resignation. Life has become an open book – whether you like it or not. If you don’t want questions, migrate to the moon, or to Mars.
“Why are you not wearing your mangalsutra or bindi or dupatta or whatever?”
Nothing puts you on the defensive like this one. Who ever thought that in this day and age, women younger than you could pull you up for not wearing the symbols of wedlock. You can understand older, traditional women asking those questions. But when modern women check you out and ask why your Indian outfit is not paired with a bindi, you wonder who makes these rules of what goes with what. I think of it as a decorative sticker not a symbol of anything. Anyone who wishes to wear it should and anyone who doesn’t, why should anyone care?
But hey, this question comes out of the blue, just when you are glowing from compliments of how pretty you look in a new salwar kameez, someone goes really green and spots that blank patch on your forehead and reminds you that you are incomplete. Point taken. Something is missing… Dot, dot dot, dot…
“Are you pregnant?”
Now this is different from the first question. This is when someone looks straight at your tummy before you have a chance to suck it in and fires that salvo. Hello, you want to say – Just think. I’ve had this tummy fat for at least two years or more. Is pregnancy the only thing a rotund tummy can be?
You swear to get rid of the tight T-shirt you are wearing and start wearing long tent-like baggy shirts. But you never know- Ms Question will still diagnose a pregnancy through and through it. You just cannot win. You have to live with the glory of being omni-pregnant for the rest of your life or at least until you figure out a way to avoid Ms Question and her X-ray eyes.
“Have you done planning?”
“Yes I have planned our next vacation”.
“No, no, ‘planning’”
“Yes, I have planned lunch-box menus for the whole week”.
“No, no ‘planning”‘.
Then you figure that ‘planning’ is planning the map of your life as in ‘planning’ your reproductive life. C’mon, how can you get this answer wrong? Planning is family planning and there is no hush-hush secret way to go about it. You need to reveal the micro details – pill or copper coil, tubes tied or something else. Other women have a right to know what your plans are and you can stop stammering and just get on with it matter-of-factly! Your gynaec history is up for scrutiny and there are several women out there who want the juicy details.
“You have made only ______ for dinner?”
Oh no, now the secret is out. You made Maggi for dinner and that will just not do. How can you? Aren’t you supposed to dish out four-course meals, year after year after year, through sickness and all? Didn’t you order a takeaway the other night? Is that what you are feeding your husband?
Oh, this question is loaded, demanding a full blown explanation and it better be good. Wait till they find out you buy ready-made chapatis and are too lazy to make your own dahi. You can almost hear the sniggers. Who cares if you juggle a family and career? Round, soft chapatis are a must, not the papads that you pass off as chapatis!
“Why are you not breastfeeding?”
Now, this is a really private activity not for public discussion. But some women love to play lactation counsellor and what better way than to make enquiries into whether you are breastfeeding or not?
Much as we would like to believe that breastfeeding is and can be done by all women, it remains a fact that there are medical reasons as to why some women just cannot even if they want to. But let other women get a whiff of the fact that you cannot breastfeed and you are in for some real bashing.
So instead of putting aside the trauma of not being able to breastfeed and looking at the alternatives, you force-feed yourself some milk-inducing fenugreek seeds, pull out the torturous contraption called breast pump in the vain hope of it extracting a few drops of dried breastmilk from your tired body and hope it shuts up the woman who questions your ability as a good mother to feed her baby. Several painful, fruitless attempts later, you go back to the powdered milk, dry your eyes and get back to nourishing your baby – all the while envying the women who have free flow milk in excess and secretly make plans to steal the bottles that they fill effortlessly every hour. So low does your spirit go when another of your ilk asks this question and actually wants to know the gory details of all that nature deprived you of!
“When are you taking another chance?”
“I am not into gambling, you know.”
“Arey ‘chance’ yaar.”
You still don’t understand.
Not one to give up, Ms Q persists with- “You know, ‘chance’ – when are you having another issue?”
“Issue with what?”
Ms Q gets to the point – “When are you giving the next good news?”
“Oh, but didn’t I give the good news 10 months ago?”
“Yes, but you have only one child and that too a daughter!”
If someone could monitor your blood pressure at this point, it has reached an epic high. Chances are the B.P. machine will explode as you work out this new ‘chance’ you must take in your life in the near future so that Ms Q and others like her are happy. The question is, is Ms. Q going to help you out with your pregnancy, delivery or in bringing up your ‘issue’? Not a chance.
“You are only a housewiiiiiiiiiiiiife?”
Said like a question, but a statement in itself. Implying that all you do all day long is sweat in the kitchen, pack tiffins, watch TV serials, gossip and sleep in the afternoon. A sad life indeed!
You try to defend yourself, you tell her it’s your choice, you tell her you enjoy it – Nope, you have to justify all those hours you are at home to this stranger you just met at a party who demands to know exactly what you’ve achieved by staying at home and wasting your time all these years. “Being a housewife is not a job, you know” – she is probably thinking and you just want to scream and tell her “Yes it is. It is a full-time, year round duty!”
Anyone who has a house has to keep it tidy and running for people to live in it. It is your job looking after your house and you work hard at keeping it the way it is. And you love it. Do you think Ms Q wants to know? She has made her statement and is now glazing over, gloating over her own ‘achievements’ while you figure why you gave up your paying 9 to 5 job to become a ‘housewife’ and be answerable to random ladies who are free to punch you with it from time to time. You swear to go home and start looking for part-time jobs even if it means going to the other end of town to do it.
“You don’t do dusting everyday?”
“Well, I have a shower everyday.”
Hmmmm…in the ‘good housewife manual’, it says ‘She’ must dust her house – shelves, corners, behind furniture, undersides of tables, between fan blades, on tops of cupboards – every single day. Oops, you’ve never known such places existed! Do you dare tell the questioning lady that you don’t bother dusting the vents of the air-conditioner, ever? That would be sacrilege – you would be banished from their club.
You want to tell them that a little dust is a good thing and even dust mites take time to adjust to new dusty surroundings before they do their nasty jobs. You hope they don’t find out that you didn’t change the bedsheets twice a week as they expect you to. So you just lie. “Yes, yes, I dust every day, even after the maid has done it – just to be sure that every evil speck of dust is removed. I have a spotless house”
(“Just warn me before you come home – in, fact tell me two days in advance and I will call the cleaning company before you inspect my house!”)
“What happened to your hair?”
This smacks you in the face and makes you want to pull your hair out, just that there isn’t much left of it.
It true, it’s sad. There is nothing like hair loss to make you feel down and out. When you see your precious hair go down the drain and that patch of untanned scalp starts showing through, you just want to hide from humanity.
Just when you shake off that fear, someone notices the thinning of your hair and BAM! ‘She’ wants to know what happened to your hair. You want the earth to swallow you up, you want to be reborn with a head full of hair, you start envying anyone with a thick mane of hair, even a hairy man, you look at girls with plaits the thickness of heavy-duty ropes and feel like cutting them off (Yes, it brings out the devil in you), you look at your hair on the floor and wonder if anyone tried making wigs with fallen hair, you feel like transplanting hair from your legs onto your head, you obsess about hair so much that you end up with more hair loss. More pain. That is what this question does…
“Are you going through menopause?”
Just when you thought you’d heard everything the cruel world had to say to you, this question starts hitting you in your 40s. You are sweating (it is a 40 degrees C summer, after all) and someone puts two and two together and makes it 40. Yes, these are hot flushes.
“Definitely”. They pronounce. “Are you going through menopause?” Without waiting for a response, they expertly pick that one symptom and the verdict is ‘menopause’. A gynaecologist would learn a thing or two from these ladies. “Your youth is over, lady”- that is the message and hope you are listening. Your pleas of “Oh but I have regular periods” or some such weak evidence is rubbished aside. Hot flushes it is. 40 equals middle age. Stop wearing those jeans and behave like an aunty at least now!
Finally, you resign to your fate. Bring on the menopause.
“Why isn’t your daughter married?”
It is nobody’s business asking you a private question such as this. Yet, how many times women ask this outright, demanding question to know the exact reasons? As if it is their right to ask as custodians of our perfect society which lays down the age at which a woman should be married, for she must be married at any cost.
Only a parent can feel the pain that such a question inflicts. Why? Why? Why? The world wants to know. Not because they can set it ‘right’ but because they want new fodder for gossip at a kitty party. A question such as this deserves no excuse, no apology, no explanation – no answer. It is nobody’s business. Period.
“Why is your child so thin?”
This ones makes you sad and angry at the same time. Sad because you try your best to fatten your child to reach the ‘ideal’ chubby body weight that society lays down as the gold standard of perfection. Never mind what the paediatrician says.
Ms Q throws a cursory glance at your child and pronounces her/him less than perfect. It is all your fault – you don’t cook right, feed right or do anything right. It is all your mother’s fault for not teaching you. You fume and froth at the mouth because this woman cannot see anything else in your child and compliment it. What is wrong with being thin anyway? You see, when it come to children, thin is unacceptable, fat, sorry ‘healthy’ is great. Touch wood! People like roly-poly kids. Now go force-feed your thin child…
“Hey, what have you got on your chin? HAIR?”
Ladies of a certain vintage will know exactly what I’m talking about. At a certain age, the hair on your head starts falling and as you wonder what happened to it (other than falling in the drain and on the floor), you realise that the naughty hormones decided to transplant this hair onto your chin! As if this whole process of chin hair sprouting by the dozens is not heart-wrenching enough, someone actually spots the hair and rubs it in with this nasty question.
Okay, you admit, it is there, it is only hair and it really hurts to have it threaded or plucked. But it really hurts even more when someone keeps looking at your chin as you as they talk to you and pops this question which is far from tongue-in-cheek!
“Why don’t you colour your hair?”
You don’t realise your roots are showing until someone shoots this at you. How did you forget that you are expected to be at your perfect best at all times? Grey roots showing are a no-no and flaunting them is blasphemy! You go on the back foot, start blabbering excuses – no time, couldn’t get the right shade, it’s not your fault, it is premature greying – defective genes, you know.
Too late- you’ve been caught out and even if you have a cold, you go buy some hair colour and slap it on those hideous roots.
Why oh why do women hurl these ‘harmless’ darts at other women? Do men ask women these questions? Doubt it.
Don’t we women belong to a sisterhood? Then why are such ‘harmless’ questions which have no answers floating around so freely and ‘innocently’?
First published on womensweb: