A conversational evening in English-speaking India, spent among friends or strangers, begins and ends with two sentences. The first is ‘How was your day?’ The last sentence of the evening muttered with grim self-importance, is ‘Better get going. I’ve got an early morning tomorrow.’
I’ve never been sure about the first question. Is it merely rhetorical, like ‘How are you’? If one answers it with some loyalty to the fact, then the reply will vary from person to person.
To ‘How was your day?, a shopkeeper will say: ‘Well, business was slow in the morning, slower in the afternoon, but picked up in the evening.’ A suicide bomber will say: ‘Woke up, ate dates and raisins, popped some Captagon, blew myself up in the afternoon, and was in Paradise nightclub by 11 p.m.’ The gau rakshak will say: ‘Being unemployed, I woke up late. Went to the railway station. Beat up a man in a skull cap eating a banana. Celebrated in the evening with a Morarji cola.’
If one really starts answering this question in earnest, it can get tiring. With a writer, even more so. ‘How was your day?’ ‘I spent it staring at my computer screen.’ One day, an editor called me regarding a column I was supposed to write. She wanted me to write on something specific. She said, ‘I thought I should call you now before you write it—because right about now you must be ideating your next column.’
‘Ideating’ I figured is a word about writers that we sort of understand. Now anyone asks me how my day was, I say I spent it ideating. Ideating has a concreteness and respectability that thinking, dreaming and scribbling do not
Office goers have it easy. ‘How was your day?’ ‘Meetings, meetings and more meetings.’ Do they ideate at meetings? I wouldn’t know.
An extension of this is: ‘How was your weekend?’ No one is really interested in how your weekend was. This doesn’t stop people from going and ‘doing’ things, just so that when they are asked ‘How was your weekend’, they can then say: ‘I went rafting.’ ‘I spent the weekend reading a book’ was acceptable till a few years back but not anymore. Reading a book means you did nothing.
What is acceptable now is this: ‘I finally watched all the seasons of Game of Thrones.’ Somehow, lying on your couch and watching an entire season, now counts as having done something. As if you wrote and directed all the episodes yourself. Browsing random episodes doesn’t count as a weekend achievement; it has to be a proper season.
The answer to ‘How was your day/ weekend’ requires one to tread a clothesline, where you shouldn’t sound like your life is dull and yet, at the same time, you shouldn’t make it sound like you had a swell time. Too much of a good time makes people jealous. Don’t say, even if it happened: ‘What a brilliant day…a friend turned up from San Fran with branded edibles, my ex dropped in after three months and we had the greatest sex, the New York Times called asking if I’d be interested in an assignment, and I finally I got my long-awaited membership to an exclusive dining club.’
This is too much of a good day. This will only prompt your friend to say: ‘But who reads the NYT anyway, and that dining club: been there so many times, man, sick of it.’ Safest to say with a casual yawn: ‘Nothing much today, mostly ideating and some meetings.’
When the evening draws to a close, the guest will gather belongings, push back the chair and say with deliberate self-regarding pomposity: ‘Better get going, I have an early morning tomorrow.’
This doesn’t mean that the guest has an early morning flight to catch. It’s just a way of saying: ‘I have a really busy life, far busier than yours.’ Why not just say: ‘Tired. Thanks for the lovely meal. Better get going and to bed.
I have a suspicion that those who say this wake up late the next day, call in sick and are among the first to ask you later in the evening: ‘How was your day?’
(The writer is the author of House Spirit: Drinking in India)