Introduction: – “The Club is like an extension to your home so you don’t want to let just anyone in.”
Lesson 1: Customer service is an oxymoron – “The customer is the biggest enemy in your life.”
Lesson 2: India and X-efficiency – “You want to know the problem with Toyota?”
Lesson 3: Everyday is judgement day
“This is India. Forget the Madras Club. Everybody judges everybody. The minute he leaves the room I’m going to judge his arse…”
In India, from the moment a baby pops their head out of their mother’s womb, the judgement starts. It begins with how fair or dark the baby is perceived to be. Of course their parents will fall in love regardless and likely think about it rather than verbalizing it, but inevitably there will be a grandmother, aunt, and/or family friend, on one or both sides of the family, who will make the proclamation on whether the shade, shape, and/or size of the baby measures up. This is something the parents and child will be told until they are no more, regardless of how the child’s features or skin colouring change as they grow up.
If you read my post Notes on being different from a privileged whitey you know that everyone judges, and they SHOULD judge. “It is how we are wired. It saves time and the effort of getting to know someone,” I wrote. I then explained how we don’t treat elderly people and children the same way as a more extreme example of how judging people on our first impressions helps us assess how we will behave towards one another. The premise is, it is what you DO with that judgement that determines your character.
India certainly does not have a monopoly on judgment, but they do collectively practice some of its most extreme forms in ways I have not seen as much elsewhere. The main reason behind this, is likely because of the collectivist rather than individualist nature of Indian culture. In India you are not born an individual, but a part of an extended family and beyond.
‘We’ are ‘us’ and ‘they’ are ‘me’
Aside from your family, there is your community, town or village, religion, and caste to judge you on. For example, if you are a from the Punjab region and/or ethnically identify as Punjabi, people will automatically judge you as being fun-loving, positive, rule ‘stretching,’ and aggressive in business. Whereas if you are a Tamil Brahman (Tam Bram), you will be judged as fair but stingy with money, career focused, nosy, and habitually clean.
Your perceived worth and reputation are inextricably intertwined with that of your family and wider ethnic group. At the same time, everything you do reflects on your family and ethnicity just as everything THEY do reflects on you as well.
If it is not immediately clear by looking at your features, clothes, or religious markings, people will ask so they know exactly how to judge you. By most, this is not seen as discrimination but expediency. They get it out of the way so they know how to think about, and act towards you. If you don’t fit into a known box, it confuses people.
Everyone is watching and waiting. Always. Your family network, wealth, and reputation will determine the schools you go to, the friends you hang around, the person you marry, and the work you will eventually do. Your family and community all have vested interests in making sure you do nothing to ‘sully’ their good name. Everyone is acutely aware of this from before they can talk.
Are ‘you’ ‘good’ enough?
The pressure is always on. Did you have enough sons? Are your kids getting good grades? Are they good at sports? Can they play music? Are they educated enough? Is there something they excel at their parents can talk about with family and friends? Are they well behaved? Are they respectful to their elders? Are they good enough? And for the parents there are a different set of pressures. Are they spending enough time with the kids? Can they give them what they need to excel? Are they in enough classes? Are they wearing the right clothes? Are they providing the right opportunities? Are they getting them into the right schools? Are they hanging out with the right crowd?
I met a former Indian beauty queen who was very career driven and ambitious. When she had her son, she put her all into turning him into a beautifully mannered, high achieving young man. She was Super-Mum and enrolled him in everything, took him everywhere, helped him with homework and so on. When he was 11 years old, SURPRISE! she fell pregnant and had a baby girl. Having a baby in the house again was a huge, unplanned lifestyle change, and an unusual age gap for Indian siblings.
“I don’t want people to think I had my daughter late and didn’t put in as much effort as with my son,” she said about her decision to wind back her work and active social life to focus fully on her daughter. “All the mothers are younger than me, so I have to keep fit, make sure I look good, and do more at the school.”
While I certainly didn’t begrudge her affording the same level of attention and effort with her daughter’s upbringing, and she clearly loves her daughter to bits, it was the language she used that surprised me. It wasn’t, “I want my daughter to have every opportunity to…” rather, “I don’t want people to think I had her late and didn’t…” That language and the crippling fear of being judged as something other than perfect is something I hear and see all the time in India.
The way things ‘should be’
There is a certain order to life and a way things are supposed to happen which must be adhered to. At a certain age you should get married (or get your children married off). The bride, at least, should be a virgin. You should incorporate the correct religious and/or cultural elements depending on your communities, and be judged on the venue, the number of guests, the caliber of guests, all of your many outfits, and most importantly, the food. You should have a marvelous relationship and live happily with the husband’s parents.
You should then immediately have fair children. You should stay married happily until one of you dies, and then remain faithful to that memory living only to support and judge your family. Your children should hit every milestone. They should have grandchildren for you to judge as you help raise them. You and your family should faithfully follow whatever religious ceremonies are required by your faith, usually Hindu, of which there are MANY. Again you will be judged on your attendance, participation, generosity of your offerings, the Pooja (Worship) Room in your home, and so on.
Anyone who has lived more than a few years on this earth knows that things rarely go exactly as they ‘should,’ and rejoicing in gossiping about such deviations is a national sport in India. I am not saying India has a monopoly on gossip as again, it is human nature, but gossip is to Indians what karaoke is to Asians: a regular national pastime which brings so much pleasure to so many whether they are any good at it or not.
The cozy cloak of judgement
The joy of gossip is all of that delicious, intoxicating contempt, or soulfully satisfying pity to delight in with your cozy cloak of judgement, while silently celebrating not being the only one failing miserably to live up to the unattainable Indian ideal.
“Poor Deepa! Her granddaughter’s marriage lasted less than a year! Deepa has done everything right her whole life. She didn’t deserve that.”
“Did you hear Vijay’s wife was caught cheating on him? How humiliating! Of course he is known to have a roving eye himself, but that’s no excuse…”
“His wife is over 15 years younger than him! How scandalous!” said an older, married male friend I personally saw hit on ladies far younger than 15 years his junior; I guess the rules for marriage and affairs are quite different…
Dignity in the face of adversity
Then there is judgement around how discrete or dignified you are in the inevitable deviations from this utopian Indian ideal.
“He treated her so badly. The neighbours used to hear. Just horrible. But she has raised those kids on her own, and married them off. She was lucky her parents were so supportive. You have to respect that.”
“I’m sure they are only together for the children. I hear both of them are having affairs now. It’s his own fault though. He should have been more discrete with his weakness for women.”
When consulting some of my oracles in the Madras Club Sports Bar on whether judgement is as integral a part of Indian society as I thought it was, one of them confirmed my suspicions.
“This is India! Forget the Madras Club. Everybody judges everybody.” He then pointed theatrically to the guy next to him and said, “The minute he leaves the room I’m going to judge his arse…”
“What’s wrong with you?”
Of course I was judged for being in my late, late 30s, not having children, and never marrying. My demographics, appearance, and general demeanor made this impossible to compute for the average Indian. I seemed like a nice person who was easy to get along with, so how was that possible? What was ‘wrong’ with me?
In one ‘welcome back to India’ cab ride in the small hours of the morning, my cab driver inevitably asked the usual questions. On hearing I was not married, the driver went through the usual stage one reaction: shock and disbelief. This was followed quickly by stage two: “What’s wrong with you that you couldn’t find a husband and don’t have kids at your age?”
After my response, I braced myself for stage three: pity, contempt, or just complete bewilderment. But he just started laughing and laughing.
“So you can just do whatever you want? You have no husband or children to answer to?”
On hearing me confirm both of those things he laughed maniacally again, and commented on what a great life I must have. Of course I then listened to what a challenge it was having a wife and children for the rest of the trip and how smart I must be to avoid it. This was a refreshing, honest, and entertaining change to the routine!
“I don’t care what people think about me”
For those of us not from a collectivist culture, it might seem simple to just not care what people think about you. Haven’t we been told the only person who can make you feel a certain way about yourself is you? Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt me, right?
One of my single female friends from the Club told me she would only go to the Sports Bar if invited by, or she knew certain individuals would be there, because otherwise there would be a lot of talk about her spending time with all of these men.
“It is different for you,” she said. And she was right. I didn’t have to care, because I was an outsider and didn’t have the weight of family and community expectations on how I should behave or who I should be.
You may not care about what all of the aunties and gossips in your community think about you, but if you are Indian, you likely care deeply about other people who care about what other people think about you. Like your not so progressive parents or grandparents… And thus you conform, or at the very least, hide your deviations expertly.
Indians do not post on Facebook. Sure, they are all ON Facebook, but they are purely there to watch and judge other people, not open themselves up to judgement. Of course there are exceptions, but they are not posting their political views, general activities, and especially not pictures of getting drunk at parties.
If you want to reach people, you can use Facebook because they will be on there looking, judging, and possibly clicking through. If you want to ENGAGE, forget it. They will not like, comment, or share lest they be judged on their opinion, activities, or thoughts. It is ‘safer’ not to.
That is not to say Indians are not proliferating their political views or sharing embarrassing photos of themselves. They are just doing it on one or more of their private chat groups on WhatsApp which consumes potentially 23 out of 24 hours in their day. That is where you will see links to Facebook and other media being shared and commented on. And where they will judge what they saw OTHERS put out there. Just privately.
One young Reddit user posted about how a picture of him with a beer in his hand made it onto Facebook.
“My mom received several phone calls from her friends, asking if I’ve been taught any manners or something derogatory. All the aunties just feel the need to talk about other people, and put them down,” he wrote. At the end he asks, “Why are we like this?”
Of course several people lamented the nosey aunties interfering and how challenging that can be. Others, as if to prove this teenager’s point, lectured him on the perils of peer pressure and underaged drinking!
Do as I say, not as I do
I regularly cracked a smile as I listened to my older friends passing judgement or offering sage advice to the younger generation in direct contradiction to the same behaviour I saw that individual exhibit the night before. While other friends implored me not to tell other friends about the early morning shots of absinth we indulged in, when I knew those friends were likely partaking in similar activity elsewhere and would probably not care.
Most people I knew were enjoying themselves, but many didn’t want other people to know about it.
What is the real lesson here? If you are Indian and want to be yourself, either leave, or do it behind closed doors! Otherwise, there is no escape from the cozy cloak of Indian judgement.
Want more Lessons from the Madras Club?
The next topics I planned to cover in the Lessons from the Madras Club might be a little too hot for the internet so I am switching to new content.
But if you want more, there is plenty I have left to say!
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- Politics and leadership
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 Indlish Translation – Auntie – an affectionate term of an older female woman. In India an ‘auntie’ does not have to be a blood relative to have the familial term attributed to them.
To be continued…
Until next time!