Trips back home are always a chance to catch up with the rest of the family, whether you like it or not. After a couple of months of hard work, there may be nothing you would want more on a visit home than to curl up in front of the TV, with a copy of Balabhoomi in your hands. However, mums find such opportunities irresistible. For them, such occasions are tailor made to go visit the relatives, if nothing else to show-off the latest version of their kids to the myriad uncles, aunties, nephews and grandmothers. Your wish to just de-stress at home has no impact on the outcome.
So it will be that you will often find yourself dressed up in your Sunday best, rushing from one relative to the other at break-neck speed to cover everyone. And it is vitally important to cover everyone. It’s just like spraying fertilizer on a field or getting a Brazilian wax. Once you commit to it, you need to go the full nine yards or else the results will be incomplete. There will be some patch left over, someone will complain, and you’ll have gone through a ton of pain for no real reason at all.
Most visits to relatives can be done on autopilot mode, smiling and nodding as little Unnikuttan or Mayamol is paraded before you and asked to recite the latest poem he learnt at school or the latest martial art move she studied after school. Make sure you mentally block out Unnikuttan’s flat rendering of Casablanca and physically protect your family jewels from Mayamol’s taekwondo, and you’re good.
There is a breed of relative that is far more difficult to manage. All of us will have one uncle who thinks he’s young enough to be our older brother. He will, invariably, ask the most uncomfortable questions or make the most cringing comments in his quest to be ‘with it’. Most will be direct assault salvos delivered in the presence of your mom, like ‘Appo mone, who is your girlfriend these days?’, or ‘ So, this new Fifty Shades of Grey movie seems to be quite an artistic exploration into the dynamics of human interaction under duress.’ You can avoid these by abruptly changing the subject by asking about his job, or lack thereof.
A few other lines of attack are less easy to manage. For instance:
- Knowledge of popular phrases – My uncle Damodaran, whom I call ‘Damu uncle’ when needed and not at all if I can help it, often throws in phrases used by millennials during our conversations. More often than not he doesn’t understand what they mean, which is often for the good. For instance, there was that occasion when he casually informed me that his daughter Savitri (my cousin) told him that she was going to her friend’s place to Netflix and chill that weekend. ‘It must be this new season of a series called House of Cards,’ he told me. ‘All her friends have been dying to see it.’ He seemed to understand it as a practice where a lot of friends get together over the weekend to binge watch Netflix shows. I smiled weakly and remarked that House of Cards was a great show worthy of chilling to.
- Archaic sense of overtime – Their grasp of work timings mostly date from the sarkar raj era where 10 am to 5pm were the nationally accepted work timings and any overtime suffered would be handsomely compensated, except if you drew the short straw for election duty. As such, they just cannot understand the virtue of any job which would demand work at 8.00 pm most nights when there was a major presentation due, without the carrot of overtime pay. Coming to think of it… neither can I. Closely tied to this issue is also the inability to grasp why anyone would want to quit a well paying job at one company to join another company. Most folks of their generation joined a company as one would a college, and left it only upon graduation (read retirement). To this day, Damu uncle refuses to believe I quit my first company of my own volition. He insists I must have been fired.
- Investing – To a man they all consider themselves experts on personal finance. Coming from an era where government jobs were the ultimate wet dream for any self-respecting graduate, their personal finance advice begins and ends with real estate. Compound that with mid-life, existential and a host of other Freudian crises, and they will often end up persuading you to buy apartments in Perumbavoor or potato farms in Coimbatore. Damu uncle’s investment pitch runs like this, ‘Do you know what investment means? Real estate, that’s what it means. All these funds and stocks are totally fraud. I invested some money ten years ago in Teak and Manjiyam plantations, and have not received a single rupee back. They are all fraud people, trying to sell you fraud things. You should only invest in land, I am telling you. Land will always be there for you. In fact, your Girija aunty’s son has just bought some potato farms in Coimbatore, why don’t you just take a look at something similar? He’s a smart boy, I am telling you.’
- Family planning – This is the worst of all. While one can understand the innate desire of these uncles to ensure the family name survives, it’s tough to understand their urgency. Increasingly stern reminders to quickly procreate punctuate each visit home. When gentle prodding fails, they resort to extolling the virtues of quick procreation. ‘Don’t delay these things, my boy. Have children as soon as you can. Otherwise you cannot enjoy being friends with them as they grow up. Look at me, if I hadn’t had Savitri as early as I did, I wouldn’t have been able to understand her when she tells me she’s going to Netflix and chill.’
There’s no easy way to dodge these bullets. If caught out in the field of fire, one option could be to replicate the tactic used to protect oneself against Mayamol’s taekwondo. Shield your jewels with your hands, and curl yourself up into a ball.