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For her eyes only... except in India

INDIA | Friday, 3 June 2011 | Views [667]

There is an ancient and secret honour code among women, a silent covenant that, whatever continent, village or house we visit is acknowledged by other women. It is the operating system upon which the earth spins, it is how All Things Are Known. It is never uttered but it is embedded in our DNA and universally understood. To the best of my recollection I have never heard it spoken of, or known it to be revealed.

Until now.  Till India.

And some Sheila has let the cat out of the bag.

It goes a little something like this: Irrespective of language, ethnicity, or culture, without need or regard for guidebooks, translators, dictionaries or a compass, the following principles hold true:

Rule No.1:  All women intuit and understand a basic level of information about all men. No exceptions, no language barrier, no verbal communication necessary. When faced with a complete male stranger we know exactly what his intentions are and what he’s thinking. Whether he’s from outer Mongolia or the outer Hebrides, there are a limited range of universal facial expressions and just because we’re not neighbours doesn’t mean we don’t understand exactly what they mean.

Rule No.2: Rule No.1 is to be kept secret. the simple infallible principle that guards us all, shields us on our travels, and carried Kate Adie to safety in war zones (while allowing her to pause for tea with middle eastern shopkeepers with bombs going off outside) is this: don’t tell. Chicks know that other chicks have got the guys sussed, and there is a pact not to tell them.

It’s fabulously helpful.

One of my greatest professional achievements was perfecting the art of nonchalant, blinking indifference among ‘big men’ who think I don’t know what they are talking about. In hot, smoky west and east African rooms filled with shouting officials who want their piece of the cake intended for the impoverished littering the gutters outside, I maintain a smiling ethereal composure and I am fabulously good at it. Occasionally one will glance uncomfortably in my direction, checking I haven’t understood while the over confident sidekick (“of course she doesn’t understand!”) will bark orders about how to extract my financial bone marrow.  Some are daft enough to telephone or even put their requests in writing. This is stupidly unnecessary. One, who wrote a polite request for a six digit sum of money was agreed by women to be almost visibly wrapped in a brown cloud. You could see that he had gone bad. He didn’t need to put it writing.  But anyway, as a foreigner and since I don’t understand the words of the local dialect, a formal written submission in English is considered necessary, while battle plans about how to outwit me get drawn up in foreign tones right across the table.

It suits me just fine ; )  

This is how things are known. This is how I get things done. Which is why I want to meet the lady that told all the men in India our secret and ask her what the heck she thought she was playing at.

I don’t speak Hindi. The only words I do understand are from my limited smatterings of Nepali or Arabic. And yet, I will have full conversations with drivers, guards, watchmen each of us speaking our own language, and the man will happily stand there chatting in Hindi, with the full expectation that I understand. Some throw in odd words of English – some don’t but they all expect I understand.  And you know what, I do. (Or maybe I don’t, maybe we’re completely at cross purposes but things get done and we both depart satisfied). And this situation is utterly unfamiliar to me.

I moved into a new apartment and a colleague asked how it went, and asked after the watchman/gatekeeper. I said ‘well, he doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Hindi but we had a chat, and managed to understand each other’. My colleague asked “what words did you understand?”

Well that just threw me.

I stood there and could not think of a single word I had actually understood but certain I had understood the meaning. “Well, he explained if I need anything to let him know, he will help, he sleeps upstairs” … I also have a feeling he asked to come in and do some maintenance; (the arrival of the plumber the next day confirmed this), but however sweet he may be, I am not in the habit of letting strange men into my house -even when it is not my house, he has the keys, works there and has more right to be there than I do.

The next day I tried to take a tuk tuk (auto/rickshaw/ small wheely beepy thing decorated with pictures and stickers of bollywood stars, should sit two, occasionally seats an entire family). A chap with a wave of his head, chatter in a language I don’t speak, an apologetic eyebrow and a chin jut indicated he would not take me but I should go with another man who had pulled up alongside us. Inside the other guy’s tuk tuk, I tried to open the trading floor for negotiations. It only was when the man said something that I knew to mean ‘its fifty you paid me that before’ that I realised I had been with him before. He now appears in the morning smiling, my own private charioteer.

I don’t get this. They’re men. They’re not supposed to expect me to understand!  They’re supposed to think I’m dumb, foreign and then they’re supposed to rip me off– right?  One driver (aged, sweet unconcerned and speaking impeccable English) floored me when I asked him the price of the journey. I asked ‘’how much’’ he answered ‘’as you wish’’


As if that weren’t bad enough the sisterhood have broken the rules too. I wanted the earth to open up and swallow us when among a small gathering, a woman one foot away asked a personal question about me right in front of me. In front of me! I could hear her! And Hindi or no Hindi I knew exactly what she was asked. I was horror stricken. It wasn’t a mean, rude or impolite question but it was a personal one and that just isn’t cricket. Women of the world (women of Africa, Oceana, Latin America and Europe) know this is just not done.  

I wanted to die of embarrassment! I couldn’t believe it – I didn’t know whether to be mortified for her or for me and I didn’t know how to react because I have never been in this situation before. A woman talking about me right in front of me thinking I won’t understand? I can’t do the nonchalant ethereal smiling unconcerned look in front of a woman! Instead I gawped, mouth open, an expression somewhere between horror and deer-in-the-headlights, imploring her with my eyes to please stop and save us all the embarrassment.  It was awful, I think even the men were embarrassed because of course, in India (where rules of polarity are turned on their axis) the men know I understood. Even if I did land here with the last shower. 

So I am lost! Bereft! Adrift! Years of craft and cunning honed in all the wrong continents have left me totally without the appropriate life skills, without the golden rules I cannot work, function, travel or socialise.

It seems I will have to buy a guidebook and learn the language after all.

Tags: lingo languages and other forms of communication

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