By Nivriti Butalia
There are levels of deceit that can corrode your tongue. I am not talking about those. I am not talking about having a parallel life or a second family tucked away. No extreme duplicitousness, none of the Nirav Modi-like behaviour, the jeweller who allegedly swindled Punjab National Bank of Rs280 crore, and who likes to see his name on hoardings in south Delhi. Nothing too vile (this is subjective) or murderous (less subjective). I am interested more in the run-of-the-mill deceit, everyday acts of subterfuge. The compliments without heart, good manners for show, the empty smiles and the fakery. Anything more dramatic I prefer to see when it’s no skin of my back, or on screen, which is why films like Phantom Thread linger in memory.I believe I adore deceit. My father tells me how even as a kid, if I wanted, I had a knack ‘of wrapping someone around my little finger’. As a kid, I didn’t know what he meant. Was my father endorsing a string of my behaviours in certain familial settings, or was he, from an anthropological point of view, amused that a child — of his, that too — could experiment so casually with deceit?
It was a soaring feeling. Like discovering you can make people laugh. There’s a headiness to it that makes you crave more. It’s understanding that with the practice of certain behaviours, you can achieve certain results. With the addition of Tabasco sauce, food becomes less bland.
In Joanne Harris’s novel, Five Quarters of the Orange, the daughter sews orange rinds into the hem of her mother’s pillowcases — to exacerbate her mother’s migraine. When I read that book, I rushed to judgement: what a horrible girl! But she’s not poisoning the mother. It’s not a sin. Sure, it’s a horrible thing to do. Ethically, I stand by my first gut reaction. But isn’t it fascinating? Don’t you want more? Sometimes I wonder whether the more one-dimensional ‘good’ people I know are capable of deceit. And ‘buttering-up’ someone doesn’t count. It’s a less interesting form and no patch on orange rinds.
Imagine this. Someone with whom you went to college is visiting Dubai. He wants to stay with you. You can’t stand the person. You would rather he pay for a hotel. There are rationales: If someone can pay for an air ticket and is so eager to visit, they could jolly well cough up a few hundred dirhams to book a hotel. Why should you endure his company?
But then you deliberate. The brain chugs in wily ways. You start thinking about how useful this frenemy could be to you in 10 years when you might be out of a job. Frenemy’s booming financial consultancy might be booming further. You think of ‘what is good for you in the long run’. If you’re the sort who stays steeped in virtue, you might hate yourself for thinking on these lines. And yet, the reply you type is: ‘Of course, you can stay! Is that even a question to ask?’ You might even go pick the guy up at the airport. That sort of deceit — self-deception, or deception of a higher system of ethics — shines a light on our motivations. And what is more interesting than finding out what drives a person? Why do we deceive ourselves? Is it because not all of us have a palate for unsalted meals?
I enjoy flirting with these distant cousins of the more real, dramatic deceptions. There are degrees beyond which I won’t — or at least don’t — venture. I’m no Nirav. But it’s webs like the ones Joanne Harris weaves which infuse drab Tuesdays with punch.
Deceit, the everyday examples, go a long and mostly harmless way in scoping out the animals that live under our skin. What else do you call it when a message appears on your phone, and instead of unlocking screen, you hit clear?
The all-too common practice of hiding your ‘Last Seen At’ — why? Don’t tell me privacy or boundaries or personal space. I don’t buy it. There’s a degree of ‘I don’t want them to know…’ There’s puppeteering that goes on. Fibbing with motive is deceit. When your mental adjustments are in flux: how much to reveal, what else to conceal, like a DJ’s console — up a bit of this, down a bit of that, no glob of butter melting in this mouth.
Deceit is browsing in Debenhams at Mall of the Emirates, spotting a colleague and ducking. The colleague walks up to you, head tilted as if still in the process of face recognition. Everyone oozes with faux friendliness. The tone of your “Oh, hi! Didn’t see you there!” — that’s your deceit. That’s also the nature of delight, a purple faced emoji with pointy horns.
Our phones are our bedrocks of deceit. The deletions, ah. All the scrubbing away of trace. Last dialled number, a name saved as another name, beginners’ lessons, surely. You have to pour Clorox on suspicions, ‘be smart about it’. Those are the easy colloquialisms we have to normalise and validate certain shady behaviours, certain shades of deceit.
Deceit is a flair. Not everyone has the stomach or the tact. And it’s no fun if you’re a bumbling deceiver. You have to be comfortable with the moths that flutter and rise up to your throat each time you lie. A grandmother giving her grandkids Rs500 behind the grandfather and parents’ back, how sweet is that deception?
How often do you have a parallel conversation in your head, even as you’re sitting in someone’s drawing room and praising the pesto sauce — ‘Yea? you made? It’s div-i-ne, must give me the recipe’— till you discreetly spit it out in a tissue, or not even worth the trouble, swallow the damn thing.
‘How am I looking?’
It’s a much-cited trope. You lie to save your skin. Men are right in lying:
‘You look fine, let’s go’.
Those lines confirm the deceit of many men. It’s a club. The deceitful all have their favourite corners.
‘Was she there that evening?’
‘Did he call on your birthday?’
‘Who were you talking to?’
‘Who did you suddenly hang up on when I walked in?’
Everyone has their personal library, their bookmarked pages, the revisited passages, check under D — for deceit, or C — for cliché.
‘I don’t know what her photos are doing in my email’.
‘It was just a drink’.
‘I forgot to tell you’.
‘There was no point in mentioning it’.
‘How is this important?’
‘Let’s not overreact’.
‘You’re making me angry now’
‘We’ll miss you!’
Fluency in everyday deceit either equips us with cognitive chops, or it takes some cognitive chops to practice it like a swan. But let’s be clear. Research on dishonesty is not favourable to the dishonest.
A 2002 study by the University of Massachusetts found that you’re not alone; 60 per cent of adults can’t go 10 minutes without telling a lie. And then there are studies that show that the brain adapts to dishonesty. It’s a slippery slope. Look up ‘reduced amygdala sensitivity + dishonesty’.
Deceit, when it’s limited to being the garden variety and not a gateway drug for full-blown embezzlement and messy illegal knots — careful now, ‘slippery slope’ — is beautiful for the possibilities it introduces. When you re-gift an ugly gift received, there’s a sprinkling of deceit there, hardly elegant, but re-gifting is also common sense. And who says you can’t practice both?
Deceit is a great friend of diplomacy. It’s the tool you use to not piss off people. It’s sometimes the tool you use to make friends, the one you call on to attract partners. One way to look at it, depending on your internal wiring, is that a smidge of deceit is essential to happiness.
Nivriti needs a little intrigue to get by, evidently