Sin and sensibility of lying

Thru’ the Looking Glass

Thirteen years ago, I was travelling all the way from Kolkata to Kerala on an Indian Railways train. Accompanying me was an Indian guy. He was a family friend, nobly escorting me around the country. Or, so the other passengers thought. In reality, he was my boyfriend (now my husband) and we were embarking on a crazy adventure together to run a guesthouse in a place we’d never been. However, this wasn’t what he told the passengers when they predictably asked who I was and where we were going. Instead, he lied. I was dismayed and confused, and admittedly a bit offended. A “family friend”? “Escorting me around India”?

It wasn’t until years later, after I’d developed some Indian common sense, that I understood how sensible he’d been. He had told the passengers the most appropriate answer for the situation. An answer that was socially acceptable and would curb further curious questioning.

What’s more, I was shocked to realise, I would do the same thing in his position. It had saved us a lot of bother. Yet, my changed perspective concerned me. I would lie, too? Where had my morals gone? Fortunately, my newfound Indian common sense provided a comforting explanation. The end justifies the means. The goal matters, not the path. It’s not the action that’s good or bad but rather the outcome. There’s no black or white, right or wrong, just a lot more than 50 shades of grey.

In a largely collectivist and hierarchical society such as India, where small talk can actually be an undercover investigation and assessment, lying is more than a choice -- it’s a crucial survival skill. Recently, an Indian friend was shopping for groceries in Bengaluru and the lady at the billing counter casually asked her how much she earned. It wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened either. Inquiring about someone’s salary is taboo in a Western country, even among close friends. Yet, this concept of privacy and personal space doesn’t apply in India. Nothing is off-limits for most people. Surname, age, weight, job, income, neighbourhood, marital status, children...and the mandatory “Why not?” if your answer doesn’t fit expectations or social norms. No wonder lies are told to avoid such intimate examinations. It’s better than having to define yourself, defend yourself, and be categorised.

That said, simply telling a lie isn’t sufficient. The skill is in telling a believable lie, and providing just enough information to make the person feel like they’ve discovered something significant, so they’ll be satisfied and leave you alone. Alas, this aptness for lying invariably extends to erode accountability and trust.

Lies are told to ensure work gets done on time, and lies are told when work isn’t done on time. The tempting ease of lying is even threatening my motivation. Why bother hurrying to be punctual when I can say I’m stuck in traffic like everyone else (despite the fact I’m still chilling on the couch at home)!

Developing my Indian common sense has meant learning to decipher what people actually mean and who is being misleading. Gone are the days when I’d foolishly clean the apartment, prepare food and wait for hours if someone said they were planning to visit. Now, I pester them numerous times for confirmation. “Are you sure you’re coming?” “99% sure.” Ah, okay, they’re probably not coming. They’re just telling me what I want to hear because they don’t want to disappoint me.

And, the customer service representative who assured me my air conditioner had finally been dispatched after waiting two weeks (but mysteriously couldn’t give me the name of the courier or tracking number when I asked him)? Definitely a lie! Of course, the air conditioner didn’t arrive. Turns out, it was out of stock.

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