What Will People Say?, a new novel by Mitra Phukan, is a nuanced exploration of the never-ending conflict between tradition and the forces of change. When I read the title of the book, I couldn’t help turning it over in my mind. “What will people say?” Who hasn’t heard the familiar refrain of “log kya kahenge”? Especially when you flirt with new possibilities, pushing the limits of what is acceptable. In one of the chapters of the book, there’s an entire catalogue of songs that capture this age-old anxiety.

Songs like “Chhod Do Aanchal Zamana Kya Kahega” and “Kuchh Toh Log Kahenge Logon Ka Kaam Hai Kehna” convey a playful dismissal as well as a sombre contemplation of social scrutiny, which reveals itself through prying eyes, rumour-mongering, and hushed chatter. The fear of being judged seems widespread and deep-rooted, reminding us that we are, after all, social beings, who cannot remain untouched by the words of others.

While this fear may be intrinsic and inescapable, it can be magnified by the collective imposition of rigid social norms: “It was all-pervasive, this fear of What Will People Think? What Will People Say? It was the way a traditional society . . . held on to the status quo.” The concern with “What Will People Say?” can arise from years of conditioning – all the lectures and warnings raising the spectre of that “vast and amorphous entity” called “Society”, which comes down heavily on anything it deems “Morally Wrong”.

The stealthy progress of change

Set in Tinigaon, which means “three villages”, the book explores a complex cultural landscape. The old guard frowns upon any hint of rebellion or nonconformity. These “pillars of society” are held in reverence by a large chunk of the population, which, despite its conservatism, prides itself on its progressiveness. That Tinigaon has no khap panchayats is seen as evidence of its liberalism, never mind the restrictions on widows, divorcees, and single women. A small city nestled in a valley in the middle of Assam, Tinigaon is resistant, but not impervious, to change. Phukan brilliantly captures the slow and stealthy progression of change – it can slip in through the tiniest of cracks, created by technology or by the influx of outsiders with a cosmopolitan outlook.

Phukan shows how an exposure to the culture of big cities becomes a catalyst for change. When young people leave Tinigaon for work or study, they throw their customs to the winds. Parents are intuitive enough to know that their children are having live-in relationships in the metro cities, but they feign ignorance. With superb tact, they ignore the goings-on, knowing perfectly well the limits of their control: “Yes, in these changing times, people were learning, slowly, to ‘adjust’ to the fact that the younger people now were prone to living their lives in ways that were different from what was deemed to be ‘allowed’.”

At the centre of this seamlessly written book is Mihika, a widow in her mid-fifties. She finds herself in a relationship with Zuhayr, a friend of her late husband. Though they both lead independent lives, settled as they are in their own little worlds, they fill the emptiness that seeps into a solitary existence by being there for each other, any time of the day, even when they are oceans apart. As it turns out, they are a part of a growing tribe of people: older couples in LAT (Living Apart Together) relationships, combining freedom with companionship. What is common or fast gaining traction in other parts of the world is an aberration for the provincial inhabitants of Tinigaon. What Mihika dares to do is nothing short of scandalous. She walks on uncharted territory without fear or hypocrisy.

But in a place like Tinigaon, appearances matter. Hypocrisy is preferred over openness. Since Mihika refuses to keep her relationship under wraps, it sends ripples across Tinigaon. Society, that dreaded entity, can no longer brandish its whip. It can only watch in growing consternation Mihika’s fearless pursuit of happiness: “[T]his … society did not know exactly how to react when the people they were admonishing made no attempt to hide their relationship. That whip was snatched from their hands, and they were left weaponless.”

The book examines the diverse and devious ways in which tradition, in its worst sense, is defended by small-minded people. Though it acknowledges the preciousness of cultural heritage, it concerns itself with the inevitability, and even desirability, of change. Fixed ideas of what is socially acceptable can have a stultifying effect:

“[W]hen conservatism became rigid, and sought to impose its beliefs on those who had a different mindset, dictating how they should behave, dress, what relationships they could or could not have, it could become a prison that prevented any kind of progress from taking place.”  

The old and the new ways

In the book, the old and new ways (literally) coexist like unfriendly neighbours. While those embracing change immerse themselves in their lives, the conservative lot snoops around, looking for an opportunity to pounce on any proof of transgression. Mihika’s neighbour keeps an eye on the protagonist’s whereabouts, peeping through the gap in the hedge that separates their houses. What looks like an annoying habit of prying and moralising – something to shrug off than to fume over – turns into vicious scheming.

The neighbour, whom Mihika addresses as “Baideo” (elder sister), throws a spanner in the works when the marriage of Mihika’s daughter is being arranged. This punctures Mihika’s confidence in her decision to pursue an LAT relationship at her age. Realising that the salacious gossip is going to affect her daughter’s future, she almost buckles under societal pressure.

Phukan draws attention to both the frivolity and hypocritical fervour of the upholders of “tradition”. Gossiping about supposed transgressions is a “mode of entertainment”. The gossips invent and embellish stories, adding spice to their own restricted lives. The so-called moral guardians use their tongue as a weapon, firing barbs, and shredding reputations with words dipped in venom. A belief in their own righteousness blinds them to the pain they are inflicting:

“They fully believed that they were doing the right thing, and were serving society in important, fundamental ways, when they spoke sternly to those whom they deemed had transgressed, or had overstepped boundaries in some way.”  

Even though traditionalists seem to hold sway in Tinigaon, Mihika emerges as a beacon of hope. She illuminates the path for those shackled by tradition, especially Hindu widows who’ve been hollowed out by centuries of imposing social demands. Her children and supporters band together to contest the tide of societal norms and prejudices, preserving the middle-aged lovers’ beautiful relationship. These individuals take on society, which, in essence, is simply a collection of countless such individuals, each of whom possesses the power to effect change, however small it may be. For those held back by the fear of what will people say, this book will bring out the rebel in you. I will end with a song that Phukan skilfully weaves into the book:

Matlabi, ho ja zara matlabi, 
Duniya ki sunta hai kyon,
Khud ki bhi sunle kabhi…

Selfish, be just a little selfish, 
Why listen to just what 
People are saying,
Listen to yourself, too, 

What Will People Say?, Mitra Phukan, Speaking Tiger Books.