You honest in your relationships? Recently, I read one of those sappy self-help books, which talked about the virtue of being completely and utterly honest in all relationships. I don’t know about you but I have a healthy amount of dishonesty in my relationships, particularly the ones I value. I believe as Oliver Wendell does that “pretty much all the truth-telling in the world is done by children” and usually at the most inopportune moments (“Are you the aunty that my mother says looks like Whoopi Goldberg on a bad hair day?”). I, on the other hand, stumble over half-truths in the interest of preserving relationships. I believe as Bertrand Russell does that if we were all given by magic the power to read each other’s thoughts, the first effect would be that all our relationships would be destroyed. Hence the white lies; hence the sugar-coating; hence the downright denial.
When my mother asks me what I think about her idlis, I don’t say, “Well, I have eaten better idlis at Sangeeta Café. Plus, they really aren’t fully your idlis given that the maid grinds the batter, which is the important part. But among home-made idlis, I think yours are in the top quartile. They aren’t the best though. That honour goes to Sita mami’s idlis and yes, I know that you hate her guts.” No indeed. When my mother asks, “What do you think of the idlis today?” I don’t launch into an explanation. I simply say, “Ma, your idlis are the best in the world. They always have been, and they always will be.”
Along the same vein, we lie to children all the time. When a kid—any kid—presents you with a poem and says, “What do you think, aunty?” you don’t say, “What a load of rubbish.” You lie through your teeth. You make allusions to Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. You say that it is the best thing you’ve read. You ask the kid to send it to a newspaper.
Sweet little lies: When it comes to key relationships, ignorance is not a bad thing.
Workplaces are cesspits of lies. When your boss asks you if the stain on his tie is visible, you don’t say, “Like the map of India.” Instead you say, “Hardly.” This cuts through almost every area: achievements (résumés, nuff said); results (“We wowed the clients.” So how come we lost the account.); performance (“We fixed all the bugs.” Then why are we recalling the product?); company values (“We need you to be transparent with clients.” Yeah, right.); and our own motives (“I want you to get credit for all the help you gave me with this project.”).
Spousal lies are, of course, the topic of epics, books, dissertations and jokes. Men lie about their wife’s looks and (the joke goes), women lie about everything else about their man, ranging from sexual prowess to the strength of a salary. Of course, this has been reversed a little by admission after admission from within the American Republican Party, where the husband lies about everything from soliciting airport sex to the state of his sexuality, particularly with respect to male ushers.
I lie to my husband all the time. My answer to his questions in many instances is the Reagenesque, “I don’t remember.” Psychologists say that the reason we lie to our partners is because we fail to acknowledge the paradoxes in a relationship. Simply put, I lie because I fear telling my husband that even though I am generally good at keeping track of things, and even though he has told me umpteen times to make a spare car key, I have yet again locked the car key inside the car with no spare as backup. To take this further, I lie because even though, as a hack, I am very used to rejection and abuse from all and sundry, the thought of hearing hubby dearest say, “I told you so,” one more time is one too many to be borne. So when he asks what happened to the car, I blithely reply, “I thought you had it.” I don’t tell him that it is parked in the middle of M.G. Road with no way to move it. I actually fantasize about costly exercises such as getting a new car, battering it a little to make it look like our own and presenting it back home so that I can pretend that nothing ever happened. This is a paradox.
I poked around for some quotes about honesty being overrated and came up with some hilarious ones. “People who are brutally honest get more satisfaction out of the brutality than out of the honesty.”
And my personal favourite: “There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously.” This reminds me of a Wodehouse novel in which an uncle sets out to publish his memoirs and Bertie has to filch the manuscript on the directive of Aunt Agatha. Some truths, I suppose, are better told after one’s own death.
To take this contrarian argument a little further: So what’s so bad about lying? It lubricates the harsh realities of the world and allows us time for the truth to sink in. When my plumber tells me that the leak, which has flooded my bathroom and caused my tiles to stand up right angles is a “small problem” that can be easily fixed by replacing the pipe, I know it is a lie. But I appreciate it all the same. It gives me time to contemplate the flood and let the facts...ahem, sink in (sorry). It allows me to delude myself that the whole issue will be solved in a day and not several months. The plumber’s lie, in effect, gives me hope. So what’s so wrong about lying?
(Shoba Narayan lies about as often as Gandhi. And if you believe that, she has a bridge in Mahabaleshwar to sell you. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Read her previous Lounge columns on www.livemint.com/shoba-narayan)