In many language classes, you are taught fairly early on to ask how the other person is. When I was a child, we were taught to perform “Ta Ta” “Bye Bye” and “how are you?” as we learnt English. There was a lot of “como estas, como estas” in Spanish class. It was a matter of pride after 15 years of formal Hindi education to learn to toss off a colloquial “kaise ho?” (always secretly panicking if it is he or ho). In my lovely Bengaluru, the more colloquial greeting is to ask if you have eaten—oota aita—an act of warm interest, and one of many reasons I have loved living here. In Malayalam, I like to ask “enthundu vishesham?” No responsible adult ever taught me to ask this extra chummy question but “what’s new?” is really more my thing than asking a fellow Malayali “sukham aano?” When writer and former Mint assistant editor Nidheesh M.K. started a Kerala election news project called “Happy Aano”, I was overcome by its perfection. Of course, we should be asking potential voters and everyone if they are happy.
Back in the days of “how are you?”. One time when I was taken to the paediatrician, the doctor asked how I was. I promptly said “fine!”, as I had been trained to say for years. She laughed and said, “If you are fine, why have you come?” I was abashed. I was seven years old and it was my first sense of that question having any meaning at all beyond a ritual performance.
Much later, I read in old-fashioned books about people “asking after someone else’s health”. That’s what “how are you” meant. More contemporary books set in the UK taught me that British people seemed to respond to a how are you with another “how are you?” This somewhat made sense. After all, in India, whatever the language you replied in, you never responded with a health report. Some elderly gentlemen I know say things like “pulling on”. Only the very old ever answered with an actual response about the state of their insides or outsides.
And then came April 2021. I am now all about asking after your health. I have never asked the question “how are you?” with so much sincerity, frequency or diversity before. I have asked strangers on social media. I have asked my children’s paediatrician. I have asked a cousin who called to tell me about someone who died. I have asked an acquaintance’s roommate who was trying to help a stranger get plasma. I have asked a man who ran away with the money we paid for a cylinder. I have asked lawyers and bakers and neighbours and young men wielding nasal swabs. I have asked estranged friends as well as people with whom I have had decades of insincere teeth-baring which could turn any second into serious backbiting.
As I typed that last sentence, I got a notification for a message from a young stranger on Twitter. He has cool hair and looks serious in his DP as he hangs out at a park. He has picked me to ask “how are you, how are you, how are you?” Ordinarily, I would have thought of it as a harmless variety of weird online behaviour, which is what it is. Right now, though, it seems both like an echo from within the abyss and like a letter held in the beak of a parrot. I am filled with despair and a desire to tell this stranger everything. I have so much practice in answering that question now.
A month ago, if someone had asked how I was, I would have said “okay, ya” and moved on to more fun things. A couple of weeks ago, I began to answer that question with the fervour of a form-filler. Location, age, pulse, oxygen saturation rate (how are you is often followed or even replaced by an enquiry about oxygen saturation rate. Like an obsessive lover from a bad movie, we are all watching everyone else’s breath). As the weeks have worn on, my answers have become more compact. I copy-paste responses on texts. If someone asks me during a conversation, I find ways to change the subject. My friend Shabani and I accuse each other of being how are you deflectors. My friend Disha, who hates this question at the best of times, asks how things are. I reply, “Yaar, just whatever, you?” She replies: this only. Yes, this only. That is the truth.
Another friend, Paromita, sends me a kind Instagram handle, “howareyou_questionmark”. It describes itself as a mental health service because “it offers answers to an impossible question”. I feel like saying many options aloud. Not the ones about surviving or drowning or the government. “I am feeling kind of…never mind.” Or “jokes have consequences” or “all things considered, there are too many things” or “zoom into my heart” or “I want to dance again.” Or wonderfully, “For you: good.”
I am back to the childhood repetition of that question—except I really need to hear the answer. And just like I felt when I was asked that question as a child, I don’t want to answer it at all. I just want to say, “for you: good”, because you look like you want to zoom into my heart.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.