1. Once Upon a time
I had not exactly been summoned to make an appearance before the Maharaja of Travancore, but it was put to me from several quarters that “it is expected” of visiting foreign dignitaries that they make such an appearance during their stay, which, being new on the job, I took to be more or less in the nature of a command. Merely a visiting teacher at the state university courtesy of the Fulbright program, and in a junior position at that, I hardly considered myself a dignitary by any definition of the term, but I was agreeable to falling in line with local custom, however pointless it seemed (why, I wondered, would I want to meet a Maharaja, or he me?), and so asked that the appropriate call be made (I had no phone myself), date and time set, transportation arranged. I also requested information on attire and what, in general, to expect, but nothing of use was forthcoming on those issues, so at tea time on the appointed date, I set forth by taxi wearing a light blue sport coat, tan slacks, and an open-necked, short-sleeved white shirt, altogether appropriate to the tropical climate and also all that I possessed in the realm of formal dress. I would have ridden my recently acquired bicycle, as I did to the university three days a week, but somehow believed I would have felt even sillier doing that than I already did.
It all felt very Kiplingesque, though from an odd distance, as if I were watching the opening scenes of an old movie set in colonial India: a minor official setting out upon some dreary, mandatory, bureaucratic journey. The Empire, of course, was long gone by then, the country a thriving if troubled democracy, and my transport a taxi rather than a horse-drawn carriage, but here I was on my way to see the Maharaja. Yes–who knew?–there were still Maharajas! With palaces, staffs of servants, herds of ceremonial elephants, walled compounds, a palace! I had never so much as shaken hands with a city councilman in my home town, and now I was about to meet a Maharaja! And empty-handed, besides. Did one take gifts to the Maharaja? (Too late now for that, as the taxi, horn blowing, plowed through the main street packed with pedestrians, bicyclists, cows, water buffalo, had I even been able to imagine what an acceptable gift might have been, or where I would have found, or been able to afford, one.) Did one, I also wondered, bow down upon meeting a Maharaja? (Should I have been practicing, and even if I had, could I, at the crucial time, have managed it without falling on my face?)
Nearly fifty years later this little outing seems even odder than it did at the time. Why, after all, should I have been concerned about how I would be received and perceived by a minor (one of many at the time) and essentially powerless (if still reasonably well-supported financially, even, strangely enough, in the Communist-governed state of Kerala) holdover from a previous and long-since emasculated regime, one who held at best an honorary position, who had even in that previous regime been merely tolerated by the colonial administration? Why, indeed, should I have even gone to this meeting, fulfilled this putative obligation which was clearly of no importance to either of its parties and held little promise of even being interesting, more like a parentally-mandated visit to an ailing, elderly aunt only dimly remembered from some family gathering in one’s childhood? That I did so–more or less willingly, in fact; no one dragged me there or threatened repercussions should I fail to carry out this assignment– undoubtedly says more about me than about anything else.
But who among us hasn’t set off at one time or another–more likely many times–on these expeditions of presumed obligation, wondering, all the while, Why am I doing this? Why did I agree to do this? Why didn’t I just say . . . ?
I‘m not talking about running errands to the grocery store (gotta eat, after all) or undertaking the miserable commute to work (gotta earn those bucks to afford to go to the grocery store) or visiting mom and pop in their retirement ghetto (maintaining family solidarity being a prime directive). I’m talking about, well, visiting the Maharaja.
Did it ever occur to you to say (to yourself–to myself–first of all), No, I won’t, absolutely not, fuggidaboutit.
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2. The Mystery of “No”
Can I borrow five bucks from you?
Will you get me a glass of water while you’re up?
Do you know a five letter word meaning “flabbergasted”?
Do you love me?
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Make that a large drink for just a quarter more?
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How about changing these figures just slightly–it’ll make things come out ever so much better for all of us.
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Scratch my back, please; yes, right there . . . ahh.
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I was met at the door–a very large, glossy, mahogany, door if not quite what one might have expected of a palace door–neither by the Maharaja nor (as one might have expected) by a servant, but by the Maharaja’s mother, who must have had a title of her own which I hadn’t been informed of (no more than I’d been forewarned about her very existence), leaving me therefore ineptly muttering my greetings much as I might have back home at the entrance to a party I’d been invited to by a friend of the hostess whom I’d never met and whose name I hadn’t quite caught. She was, nonetheless, very gracious, leading me into what I presumed was a sitting room since it contained nothing but stiff-backed chairs and informing me that her son would be joining us momentarily, and, by the way, she wondered, as she gestured for us to take our seats, did I happen to know any marriageable young American women who might make a suitable wife for her son.
“Us”? Did I mention that my own eventually-to-become-ex-wife, still in the process of learning how to wear a sari (it was early in our time there, but it had been impressed upon me that calling upon the Maharajah was not to be put off), had joined me on this journey and was just then trying not to show her discomfort as she took her seat beside me? No? I thought not. I considered it but decided that, no, I didn’t have to, it wasn’t particularly relevant (despite the fact that she looked quite fetching in a sari and with her dark, Semitic coloring might have passed easily for Indian in the north of the country, if not here in the beautifully black-skinned south). She might have belonged there at the Maharajah’s but doesn’t belong here, and besides, I’ve recently spoken with her and she labors under the bizarre notion that we paid this visit at the very end of our year in India. So let me get in a little practice here: No.
The Mother-raja was quite charming once we got past the matter of marital potentials, of which I had none to offer. No sisters? she inquired. Sorry. Cousins? Only two of the appropriate gender, both already married. Such a small family. Yes. Pity. Yes. Though she herself, she admitted, had only the one son. Mmm. And saw little enough of him–as I was beginning by then to see for myself.
A servant entered with the tea tray, though no one had inquired if I wanted tea.
What would I have said, anyway?
We’re agreeable people, most of us. “Yes” is learned behavior. From early on we get rewarded for “Yes,” reprimanded, at the very least, for “No.”
“Eat your peas.”
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“OK, then sit there till you do.”
Unlearning takes time, effort, and perhaps other, less admirable qualities.
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4. How hard is it, anyway?
Yes. No. Such ordinary, monosyllabic words to say, though in fact it takes only half the effort to say the latter than it does the former. “Yes” (“yay-ess” in some places where I’ve lived) requires a pair of physical actions: tongue arched against the back teeth, followed by sliding the tongue forward to achieve a hissing of breath. “No” but a single movement: tongue against the back of the teeth. And there are so many ways of saying Yes: Yessir; Yes, ma’am; Yes, please; OK; Sure; Of course; Certainly; You bet; Uh huh; and even the backwards, hesitant, Well, why not. While we do quite well–much more directly, one might argue– with No’s more limited vocabulary: No thanks; Unh uh; Nope (and maybe on rare occasions the more emphatic Not on your life or the even stronger Are you outta your fuckin’ mind?). And children, as any parent can tell you, learn to say “No!” far earlier–and more forcefully–than its positive counterpart. (Though as a rare contrary example that only reinforces the general rule, I once knew a friend’s child whom I never heard get farther in that latter direction than a hesitant “Yes, but. . . .”).
Trust the little children. At least until they become sufficiently socialized to understand that regardless of their real feelings life becomes a lot easier if one can at least muster a “Well, OK, I suppose so.” But oh, how they have to drag it out, when an honest “No” would be so much simpler, so much more direct, so much more honest, so much . . . (as we all learn) harder to do.
Though never quite as elegant as Bartelby’s “I prefer not to.”
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5. Another Once upon a Time
Once upon a time I seem to have known, at least briefly, how to say No. This was even longer ago in Lexington, Kentucky, which may have offered me the advantage of being a town that in so many ways made it easy to say No, a town I believe I could still say No to without much effort. The first wife noted above and I lived there for two years, during which time we discovered a late night Black jazz bar, a little jewel in a place of dross. On our first visit there, the only white people in the place then or on any of our many subsequent visits, we paid our dollar each for membership in a “club”–aka after hours bar–and sat at a little table to drink cheap beer and listen to a great jazz flutist and his trio, who captivated me from the first with a number he later identified with the unlikely title of “The Swingin’ Shepherd Blues.”
But first, on that very first night, before we got to the point of familiarity where I could ask him questions, he eased his way over to us as soon as the group took its next break, leaned over our table, and asked us one.
“What can I play for you folks?” he asked. “How about ‘Autumn Leaves?’”
It was, of course, a test. That it was a test was easy for me to recognize because I had just completed a long, academic phase of my life when I had been taking a lot of tests. I was good at taking those tests, most of which required long, wordy answers. So this one was easy. It only required a one word answer. Well, two, or three.
“No,” I said. “No thanks.”
It must have been the right answer because he didn’t ask any more questions, he sat and had a beer with us, and every other time we walked in there–’round midnight, usually–we were welcomed, and not just by him.
It was good practice for me, too, because a year later, when said wife suggested we might start looking for a house and settling in to Lexington, Kentucky, which for many reasons had come to seem to me one of the worst places on the planet, I had no trouble whatsoever saying No then either.
You’d think I must have become at expert at No by then.
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6. Yes, but . . . (or, No, but . . . )
But, as you know, only a few years later I found myself sitting in an uncomfortably hard chair in a spacious room that was chilly in spite of the perennial warmth of South India, waiting for the appearance—ah, here he is now, at last–of the Maharaja. A little guy, as it turned out, not even my own five eight, in a white shirt, black slacks, and sandals. A skinny little guy with a velvety handshake and a whisper of a voice. This was a maharaja?
Somewhere during the muddle of his entering and introducing himself–not with the Maharajah title but with some sort of real name that I instantly forgot, as is my wont–his mother and her marital agenda had disappeared, which was apparently OK with him because he never bothered to bring that subject up himself.
What he wanted to talk about was his hernia surgery. Which was, for better or worse, OK with me because (a) I didn’t have any agenda of my own for our more or less mandated chit-chat (having failed initially to say No to the whole idea of this visit, I’d totally repressed any thought of what sort of conversation might be involved) and (b) hey, I’d had my own hernia surgery just a couple of years before, so we were practically buddies. Except for the fact that for mine I’d gone to a bad doctor at the local hospital (one more strike against Lexington, KY) whereas he’d flown to England for his, which at least was something that seemed, finally, very maharajah-ish. Not exactly the Prince and the Pauper–we weren’t about to change places on the basis of this slim connection–but grounds for, maybe, something. At least he’d opened up a subject on which we were equally matched as to expertise.
The only problem turned out to be that once we’d discovered that we had the same medical procedure in common, that it had hurt (and his still did), but that now we were basically fine, we had nothing else to say. Did you talk about the weather with a maharaja? No, no more than you’d be suckered into a honkie tune like “Autumn Leaves.”
We sat there. He had no more to say than I did. He had, I could see, no more desire to be there than I did. The great, unspoken “NO” that either of us could and should have offered up to the very idea of this visit hung crushingly over us like the huge, gray, floating body of one of his ceremonial elephants. But the ceremony, such as it was, was over.
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7. Just say . . .
There is, of course, that elephantine and useless slogan, which I’m reasonably sure you, too, must be thinking of by now, also hanging over us, as it has for the past decade and more, the deluded stepchild of the more commercial “Just do it,” neither of which takes into account what it is to be a complex human being in a complex and often disheartening society.
Just forget it.
“No” may be one of the earliest and easiest words to plumb the depths of the world with–right after “Ma” and “Da”–as well as a slick ramp to response, a slap in the face of authority, or a pure assertion of self, but it’s also a toddler glopping around in the mud, slathering it all over himself and everyone who dares to get close to him: No no no no no no . . . . “No” as slogan, “No” as bumper sticker, a simple circle with a diagonal red slash through it, the inevitable, politicized, commercialized, ubiquitous, infantile “No” that pretty soon no one, not even the most doting, responsible parent, pays any attention to.
But let us, nonetheless, restore “No” to its rightful place in the pantheon of most significant words, yes? Reclaim its ancient heritage as a mature, meaningful, personal declaration, not as a negative but as an affirmative statement of one’s position, even when it needs to be packed in the practical and socially acceptable bubblewrap of explanation: Faulkner, for example, famously and perhaps apocryphally expressing his No to a dinner invitation at the White House by protesting that it was too far to travel to have dinner with strangers.
Next time, we won’t be having tea with the Maharaja.
We have other plans. Or we don’t.
Do you need to hear any more about this?
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I didn’t think so.