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Opinion | The competitive sport of staircase wit

Are you good at repartee? Do you come up with the perfect response on the spot or do the ripostes strike you later?

Staircase wit is a competitive sport that many of us learn in middle school.
Staircase wit is a competitive sport that many of us learn in middle school.

What is your position on repartee, I ask my friend Sruthi. She has been complaining about the general lack of wit in notionally uplifting Zoom meetings. “Do you feel good at repartee or the kadak jawab?" I asked her. Post facto, she said. “It all replays in my head and I come up with nice ones. At the moment I am goldfish."

This is all-too-familiar territory.

A friend and I habitually report annoying social interactions and say: I wanted to say X, I wanted to say Y. “What did you actually say?" we ask each other eventually, after laughing or groaning. The mathematical answer is one-tenth of X or one-hundredth of Y. Shamefully but rarely, the answer is 0. Or to use Sruthi’s description, goldfish. You know how it is. You are too annoyed to come up with a good response, even in your head. You lie awake and think of so many variations on an elegant theme, that thing you should have said, and that rankles more than the original insult.

This human condition was given a great name by the 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot. L’esprit de l’escalier, or staircase wit, is that perfect response you should have had while at the party on the first floor but which only occurred to you after the door is closed and you are walking downstairs. The soggy jawab, like a Marie biscuit dunked too long.

Another friend, Maria, recently described a series of maddening conversations which involved a lot of instances of “I wanted to say, I wanted to say". What did you actually say, I asked her. Nothing, ya. Maria is convinced that if she had said any of the things she wanted to say, “it would all be over". Would it? Yes, she insisted. No, no, people are shameless, I argued. You should say it, Maria, I urged her. But in Maria’s imagination, her repressed repartee is a sleeping dragon. In Maria’s imagination, if she spoke, tongues of fire would burn everything. Like Madurai after Kannagi’s curse, I asked Maria. Yes, she said. But what if it only burns a few houses and there are no casualties? Maria believes that her great powers come with great responsibility. Hence Maria only burns on the inside.

Not that I don’t understand. For years and years, I said everything on my mind exactly as I thought it. My childhood and teen years were full of encounters with annoying relatives who left with mild-to-severe burns and smoke inhalation. I improved marginally as a young adult. One time while cooking a complicated meal and being very distracted, I said something to an annoying guest that was such a correct description of her personality that the party came to a shocked standstill. My worry about too little salt had been eclipsed by too much truth. That was bad form as a host, and bad form even at an aesthetic level, because where was the wit in making such a bald statement? In the ensuing years, I have learnt to somewhat rein in that horse. Or so I think. Is it that decades of insincere smiling have atrophied that muscle and I am still giving myself party-stopper Kannagi airs, I occasionally wonder. The thought of having the terrible fate of staircase wit makes me run out and pick an argument right now. As if it is a competitive sport.

Which, let’s be honest, it is. And it is a competitive sport many of us learn in middle school where boys and girls behave as if they are in rival qawaali teams or training as understudies for Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. As I thought this, I wondered if this is dated, perhaps classrooms are not so polarized any more? Apparently not! Rejoice, o confirmation bias. A friend’s 10-year-old niece recently informed her that she dislikes boys because they say weird things like boys are better than girls. The niece says she usually turns up her nose and says “think what you want". The aunt suggested that perhaps you can reply, “if only I cared what you think". At which point young miss said, “No, I should say, tiffin mein kya hai? Bheja? Toh woh khao na?" This is so carefully calibrated for her peers that it cannot be improved upon, in my opinion.

So do you also feel mad at the lost opportunity, I asked Sruthi. “No, I don’t have such high expectations of self," she says, and with annoying high-mindedness reports that two dragonflies are mating and flying outside her window. Well, then. I guess I am on my own on this staircase.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, released last month.

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