The Tribune - Spectrum


, March 17, 2002

Life Ties

How cocooning affects social attitudes
Taru Bahl

SUNIEL was a bored child in class. His over-involved mother made him familiar with his 3 Rs before he entered kindergarten. Her personal coaching ensured he maintain a substantial lead from the child who came second in class. As a result, there rarely was a sense of involvement on his part in activities which made up the day's routine in school. He knew what the teacher was teaching and he finished his class assignments in a quarter of the time his classmates took. After that he would either stare out of the window disinterestedly or fidget with his feet and pencil box. His above average intelligence gave him an attitude early in life making social interaction that much more difficult. He found most boys his age silly and childish. A voracious reader, he was way ahead of his peers when it came to reading fiction and literature. Gradually he turned into a loner who the class teachers too couldn't fully comprehend.

He grew up to be highly individualistic. He had fixed and vehement likes and dislikes. If he did not like a movie or an author he did not think twice about trashing them and articulating his views without mincing words. He rarely thought about what others would feel. He was entitled to his opinion and was not forcing them to toe his line. When friends or worried relatives commented on his anti social behaviour impressing upon him to be more civil and tolerant he bitterly retorted with a finality which brooked no scope for discussion saying, "life is too short to suffer morons. I have a lot to do and I have no intention of wasting time making polite conversation or indulging nonsensical ramblings of brain dead people. Surely I have the freedom to do and say what I want. Especially since I don't tell others what to do."


Suniel was not too keen on marriage. He was self-sufficient in his needs. A fussy eater, he had learnt early to cook. Being technology friendly helped since he could use gadgetry to run his life with precision without being dependent on those he found "intolerable". When his mother selected a girl with all the right credentials he relented, albeit reluctantly. Malini was a fun-loving, vivacious and house-proud girl. She was simple and untouched by city sophistication. She carried her heart on her sleeve and was extremely giving in her relationships. She made friends effortlessly and loved having an open house. However, it didn't take her long to realise that this was would not go down well with her husband.

Although he never directly communicated his expectations to her, he resented her not having read the classics or Shakespeare as a growing child. It appalled him to see that her reading was confined to magazines and Mills and Boon. Her taste in music was limited to ghazals which were a far cry from the Western classical and Jazz tunes reverberating in his ears. As the initial novelty of the relationship wore off, the intellectual gap became extremely pronounced. However, she may not have been too uncomfortable with it since she was used to making adjustments and fine-tuning herself according to the needs of the person across in the name of laughter and a tension-free atmosphere but here she too was at a loose end. The mother and son without so much as trashing her verbally had practically shut her out of their lives.

It was their silences which made her most uncomfortable. They shared books and characters, plays and concert reviews with each other, obliterating her completely out of the conversation. Not once did they try involving her or trying to help her build a new set of interests. She was more than willing to learn. Worse still, they never appreciated her natural abilities. Her easy going temperament which allowed people to instantly relax was lost on them perhaps because they were so used to making people feel awkward in their company. Indeed, that was the toughest thing for Malini to cope with.

She was forever struggling to 'normalise' the ambience of her house,especially in front of visitors. Her training had ingrained in her mind that a visitor, even a casual neighbour or friend's driver must be asked in politely, offered water and tea and made small conversation with till he left. This was certainly not the trend in the household she had married into. The inherent snobbery and elitism which both Suniel and his mother wore as second nature had in any case eliminated most people from their social calendar. The few relatives, friends and colleagues who did drop by came out of a sense of obligation.

The onus of making conversation rested solely on Malini's shoulders. Suniel would mutter an inaudible hello before dragging himself off to the bedroom or sitting across and staring into space, responding with monosyllabic guttural sounds. There were times he made the right mandatory signals but one could see they were forced. To cover up for his lack of social grace, Malini ended up doing his share of talking too. So overburdened and guilty she would feel that she went on an overdrive attempting to make small talk.

She would put her foot in her mouth, say something indiscreet or which was at a complete tangent. Although it was all in pure innocence, it was only a result of the stress that she was carrying. She did not want the visitor to see how ill- adjusted and unwelcoming the family was. The pressure of putting on an act took away the spontaneity which was her hallmark, making her come across as someone given to talking too much for her own good.

As time went by their social life became non-existent status. The silences in their home were unbearable. Suniel donned the air of a martyred lamenting his fate for being stuck with a partner who did not match his intellectual wavelength. Malini was traumatised and isolated. Her sense of worthlessness peaked and she was no longer the bubbly girl of her youth. She shied away from people having lost the confidence to win over friends and more importantly to sustain relationships in the long term. She picked up a job out of sheer desperation. And this perhaps was the best thing she had ever done. Within two to three years, she found she could actually do well and command respect in an environment which she had all along perceived as being hostile to her below-average abilities. Seeing her success took both her husband and his mother by surprise, though her intent was never to prove anything to anybody.

Once her confidence was restored in herself, she found her old exuberance returning. The only difference was that she was now mature and sensible enough to just be accountable for herself, her behaviour and actions. If people close to her chose to behave badly, it was their problem not hers.

She accepted her husband and his mother's superior attitude with the knowledge that this superiority actually stemmed from their inability to cope with people. Their narrow vision was limiting them and if they could actually believe that they could thrive in the glass house they had built for themselves, they were welcome to reign in their kingdom. She neither felt sorry for them nor did she try covering up for them. If her friends came, she tactfully told them that her family was not the sort to socialise but she loved having them over.

Thanks to Malini's small-town upbringing she never over did her 'independent' act. She was not out to make her husband feel small or inadequate. Once she started working, her interests expanded and her gentle attempts at establishing lines of communication made their relationship tolerable. Though there were times she felt he was losing out by not connecting to people. She knew he would be happier and more successful if he was receptive to influences around him. He could not give positive strokes to anybody because he had never really received them from anyone other than his mother. And since that was linked to his achievements, he remained focused only on upgrading himself, adding value to his accomplishments and in growing as a person. But Malini was convinced that growth of this kind would have gaps because unless it was tinged with human experience and interaction it remained sterile and cosmetic. It was like the cocooning or popcorn effect where too much of intellectualising led to a tunnel vision which only created ill-adjusted socially unfit human beings.

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