That nations and societies are distinct from one another is a debate among thinkers past and present. Of course, we are all part of the human race; that much is self-evident. Surely the painless hurt over a lover lost, or the blushing embarrassment after a public scolding, are felt universally and across all continents.
And yet all societies form distinct means of communication and understanding that are apparent only to those that form a part of it.
Those looking in from the outside might as well be blind to them. In our part of the world I have found one such characteristic to be unique, and therefore most intriguing. ‘Nakhra’ — the art of pretended hurt and disaffection.
It can be found mostly in women and children, though it is tucked away and hidden in all men, too. And it is an art that needs an artisans’ resolve to develop, for otherwise it would be part and parcel of all human societies. That it finds its home most readily in the contrived looks of pain, and the sullen turning away of faces by the women of South Asia, is suggestive of a grander national or regional psyche. Perhaps only when we see hurt are we of this region moved to act.
In fact, just yesterday, I saw it while walking around Liberty Market. A family of four passed by me; one child sitting on the father’s shoulders, the other prancing about excitedly trying to relinquish himself from his mother’s tight grip. His loud screaming protestations to his mother caught my attention at first and my eyes took the liberty of peering in to their lives for the ensuing ten minutes.
From where I stood I gathered that the young boy of five, or maybe six, was making repeated appeals to his parents to return to the toyshop round the bend. His screams and cries were without tears; his punches to the mother’s thighs were without force; and combined his pleas were without effect.
And yet ten minutes later the family went in to the toyshop to grant the young man his fleeting wishes. What had changed was not the boy’s wants but rather his method.
After his failure to convince at high pitch, the young man resorted to nakhra. He sat down on a bench on which there were dusty imprints of shoes and cigarette ash strewn all over. He folded his chubby arms, pouted his darkish lips and frowned his thick-ish brow. He had turned ashen on the ashen bench — and quite expertly so I might add.
The parents, whose eyes had been surveying the shops selling shawls in search of a good bargain, turned back towards their son. This next round of negotiation was both one-sided and short. The son simply turned his face away, and refused to speak. If you ask me it bordered on theatrical. And yet something that I could not see nor feel happened. In those few moments, it was as if the father’s heart had melted at the sight of his son hurt. And no sooner had that happened that the family went round the bend, into the toyshop, and out of my field of vision (and probably also out of my life).
Children aside, I have found nakhra to be most abundantly apparent in the women of this sub-continent. In their teens, when a joke is made at their expense; in their twenties when they wish to exact a favour from a loved one; in motherhood when they seek a break from their husband’s mother; and as grandmothers when their grandchildren outgrow their commands.
But what to make of all this? As a trait it is adorable, if not tantalisingly sensual. But is it the voice of the powerless? Is it the last resort of someone who is entirely dependent on the other? Is it the soft urging of a wife who must live out her days with a controlling husband, for she has nowhere else to go? Perhaps it these things, too.
That young boy of five, or maybe six, put on airs of contrived sentimentality to get what he wanted. He of course was entirely dependent on his father’s wallet, and probably, though I hate to say it, so too was his mother. Perhaps, she too would resort to nakhra when it is she who wishes to buy that maroon shawl, which would hug her shoulders most amorously this season.
The matter with nakhra is that though it is at its most beautiful in a poet’s pen, the sense of dependence it represents is quite disturbing.
Will this new age of working women, ever-increasingly staking their independence from men, mark the slow death of nakhra? I think not. My guess is that we will start seeing more of it, only this time in the emotionally stunted bravados that are the men of South Asia.