Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The power to say no

Pritish Nandy
02 January 2012, 09:18 PM IST


My worst failing is my inability to say No. This year I intend to correct that. I will clearly and unequivocally say No when I want to. Not a Maybe or a Perhaps; a straight, categorical No.

For people like me it’s not easy. We were brought up being told that No is impolite, rude, and politically incorrect. There are nicer ways to turn down a request. You can gently fob it off. Or procrastinate. Or do what my friend Husain, the painter, always did. He said Yes to everything and promptly disappeared. Poof! People have waited for him to inaugurate an event in London while he went off to New York for a party. No, Husain never allowed a commitment, any commitment to burden him. He happily failed each, knowing fully that he will be forgiven for his indiscretions. He blamed it on his poor memory. But memory had nothing to do with it. Insouciance did.

My friend Mario was identical. He did hundreds of cartoons for me when I was editor, but never on time. Give Mario a deadline and you could be sure he will miss it. He completed every assignment but in his own time. I remember he once came to me with a cartoon so late that I had forgotten what it was for. But no, he never said No. He was always polite, always proper and agreed to any deadline I set him because he knew he would not have to keep to it. We decided to do a book together, of naughty limericks, largely based on Indian politics. I waited three years for him to complete the drawings. By the time they were ready, I had lost the manuscript. (We didn’t have computers in those days and typescripts were easy to lose.)

I smoked my first cigarette at 7 because I couldn’t say No. I downed my first whisky at 9, smoked grass at 11, all because I couldn’t say No. Luckily I found it all quite boring and so, by the time I was 16, it was all over and I was ready to take on life on my own terms. Minor addictions have never distracted me since. I listen to Vivaldi, read Dylan Thomas, try to figure out why Damien Hirst is such a vastly over rated artist. I can spend all day listening to Mallikarjun Mansur and marvelling at his genius if only I can say No to a million silly, irrelevant commitments I pick up, for people I barely know.

My father died because he couldn’t say No to a doctor, a family friend in Jabalpur who convinced him that prostrate surgery was the easiest thing on earth, and he could do it in his own nursing home. By the time I heard of it and rushed there, he was already in a coma from which he never recovered. We finally pulled the plug on him. My mother lost our family home in Kolkata because she couldn’t say No to her landlord, who requested her to give up her decades old tenancy because his family had grown, needed more space. Even before she packed up her meagre belongings and came to me here, the landlord had sold off the house. Yes. Life makes suckers of us all. Especially those prone to saying Yes.

I was reading the cover story in a news magazine recently which argued that the most important thing you can tell your doctor is No. Most people suffer because they say Yes and get lumped with medication they don’t need, tests that are not necessary, and surgeries they could have done without. This is true at the dinner table as well, or in a restaurant. The more often you say No to the lip smacking food there, the better your health will be. The day we can say No to all the candidates when voting, the quality of our politicians will improve.

Life is a honey trap. Everyone’s waiting for you to say Yes. The moment you do, you are entrapped by absolute, arrant nonsense, breathtakingly packaged, aggressively promoted, seductively laid out in front of you, and completely irrelevant to your life or well being. The wise man says No. The fool succumbs. 2012 is my year to say No. An emphatic, easy No. Like Eric Bana told his handler in the last scene of Spielberg’s masterpiece, Munich. If a patriot who risked his life hunting down terrorists can say that, so can you and I.

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