“How are you, bhai”? “Good work, behna”. “Welcome to our home, baji”. “Cool job, bro”. “You show ‘em, sis”.
The standard language of discourse between Pakistani men and women who happen to have been temporarily thrown together in a social context but are otherwise wholly unrelated. We cannot seem to bring ourselves to talk to each other unless we can do so in a familial/fraternal framework . And should one of us happen to commit the social faux pas of addressing a member of the opposite gender without the accompanying epithet, the mere act of asking for a glass of water can assume the connotations of a pick-up line.
Do we ever stop to consider our reliance on these social props to interact with men and women (I have consciously avoided saying “boys and girls”) we cannot demonstrate a familial association with? The considerably more mature view held by a close friend was that Pakistani men are pre-conditioned get all sorts of purple ideas if you don’t immediately draw lines in the sand – lines bounded by the word bhai and behen. I must say I have some sympathy for her views. But the more popular knee-jerk reaction will be that these explicit norms for according respect to the opposite sex available in the sub-continental and Muslim cultures are a source of strength for us, not a weakness. .
But is that really true? Do we really respect the “other”? Why do we feel so compelled to associate relationship to register respect? And, more significantly, what does it say about how we feel about those who we do not address in this fashion? Is it okay for them to fall below our threshold of request, and does the seemingly innocuous act of not using the add-on language send a subliminal message that we consider them as being undeserving of respect? Perhaps disreputable, even?
The way I see it, deep down we’re still cave dwellers driven by instinct. And when that instinct threatens to boil to the surface and break free, we try to suppress it with sophistries. Such as segregated social gatherings. And religious injunctions as to mode of attire and gaze. And the social etiquette of calling each other bhai or behen. Ground realities seem to belie the myth that the human is no longer quite the animal it used to be and has evolved to rise above its baser instincts. It hasn’t, really!
You see, there IS an undeniable sexual tension between men and women. Everywhere. All the time. And it refuses to go away no matter how loudly we call each other bhai or behen. And since we have been conditioned to believe that one may reserve such sentiments only for one’s spouse and any other such experience is intrinsically sinful, we remain perpetually suspended in a state of subconscious guilt. Which we try to hide from by putting up these mental screens. In simple words, we are trying to tell ourselves: if I lie to myself frequently enough that person X is my brother/sister, I will (hopefully) stop looking at him/her in a more sexualized context. We even manage to convince ourselves that this subliminal lying works. The problem is that it doesn’t work. We can run from it, but we can’t hide. It gnaws at our insides, fighting to crawl out, horns, tail, fangs and all. And knowing that scares the hell out of us. At a subconscious level it reminds us of what base, despicable creatures we really are. The fact is that no one is like our brother / sister except our brother / sister.
I am now just about at the point where I should start getting pelted with rotten tomatoes by the readers of this blog (all five of them). So what are we supposed to do, you ask. Abandon ourselves to a cave-like existence and disregard 10,000 years of social evolution and civilization? No, that’s not what I’m recommending at all. But we CAN begin by accepting that sexual tension is a fact of all animal existence, including human. And instead of trying to go into denial and establishing this elaborate masquerade, we can teach ourselves to recognize this tension as a necessary part of our psychological make-up, and rise above it. Respect him / her because he / she deserves respect as a fellow traveler. In simple words: I accept that you have a powerful primeval effect on me, and I appreciate your influence, but I am mature enough to look beyond this and engage with you as an equal member of society. Equal.