Yesterday, I had this huge argument with my brother — we called each other names; raked up transgressions, both real and imagined; and stopped just short of throwing plates at each other, not because we didn’t want to but because they are stainless steel plates; and after all, the whole point of throwing stuff at people in the midst of an argument is to watch them duck and the thing break with a satisfying crunch against the wall. Stainless steel plates don’t crumble into a million pieces, alas.
Fight club: Are you a silent, sulky sort or a no-holds-barred yeller? JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
So anyway, I had this huge fight with my kid brother. This is normal for me. I routinely disown people I care about before they disown me. The point at which I realize I care about someone is the moment I start heaping obscenities at them.
I think there are two kinds of people with respect to arguments and fights: the strong civilized types who use the silent treatment and long sulks to get their point across and the type who resort to a no-holds-barred yelling approach. I am sure there is a third category: people who don’t fight; people who use softly spoken reason and logic as a way of getting their point across. I have never met such people. Scratch that. A woman in my building says that she never fights with her husband. I just don’t believe her.
My fights are like volcanic eruptions where I emerge afterwards as a shadow of my former self, covered with the lava and soot of past and present sins. After a half-hour of sulking, I apologize to the other person, be it brother, husband, father or friend, not because I am sorry but because I have suddenly remembered one more point that will prove to him that I am right; that he is wrong.
The last time this happened, my mother happened to be home. She said, you know, during an argument, there are two options: You can yell back or take the high road. Character, she said after a pause, is taking the high road; turning the other cheek.
When your own mother starts questioning your character, you know you are not having a good hair day. Ma, I said irritably, it’s a good thing we don’t have a war going on. Then you would have realized what amazing character your daughter has. I don’t mean that I am a character; I mean that I have character. More so than that son of yours. The last comment made me realize that children, no matter how old they get, still compete for parental love.
My mother shook her head, muttering that nothing I said made sense any more.
But I meant what I said; and I meant it to sting. Wars, famine, earthquakes and epidemics are superb tools to gauge character, to take a measure of who you really are. There is nothing like a crisis to bring out a person’s true mettle.
Have you ever wondered about the stuff you are made of? About whether you are the kind that will stay and fight till you die or escape to safety? About whether you are the kind who will give it all up for someone you love or play it safe? When the chips are down, pal, what are you made of? That is character.
Living in a developing country such as India, it is easy to believe that circumstances determine an individual’s character; that the reason poor people steal is because they are poor. True? Yes and no.
A week ago, my mother (the same woman who questioned my character) and I took an auto-rickshaw ride to MG Road in Bangalore. When we got off, I discovered that my small jute purse had fallen off my arm and into the back of the rickshaw. As is always the case with children when they are upset, I blamed everything on my mother. We went to the Commercial Street police station and registered a complaint, a somewhat surreal experience. We kept calling my cellphone, informed the credit card company and wondered if we should change the locks of the house. This happened at noon. By 8pm we lost all hope. My daughter, unbeknownst to me, continued to ring my cellphone. At 9.30pm, a man picked it up. He was the auto-rickshaw driver and his name was Hridaya Raj. He had just got off his shift, he said, and discovered my purse. He came home and delivered it, with phone and credit cards intact. We gave him a small reward, but not nearly as much as he deserved. I will not forget him as long as I live. Hridaya Raj had character. He could easily have walked away with my purse but he chose not to. Which is why it gets my goat when columnists say that there are no heroes in India today; when people gripe about getting ripped off by their maids.
I am not a naïve fool. Or maybe I am. I’ve had diamond earrings stolen from within my house. But I’ve also walked into duty free shops with the express purpose of spraying free perfume on myself before boarding the next flight. Getting tempted by what does not belong to us is human nature. Being able to resist temptation is character. Clearly, I — with my penchant for free perfume — don’t have it.
Today, most of us confuse character and reputation. We are worried about our reputation, about what others will think of us. In this sound-bite era, what we project can become more important than who we are. But reputation is like a carapace that can come off; character is what lies beneath. Only you and your Maker know.
I’d like to think that I would risk my life to save another person. I’d like to believe that I would take a bullet to save my best friend. But it is hard to be sure. What is character until it is tested? So in the absence of a real war, I’ve decided to turn the other cheek during wars in my home turf. Even though I am right.
In the heat of battle, Shoba Narayan takes insults…and throws plates. Write to her at email@example.com
Click here to read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns on www.livemint.com/shoba-narayan