Keep Calm and Overreact!
Updated: May 9
"They sicken of the calm who know the storm" : Dorothy Parker
Date: 11th November, 1996
Time: 5:30 PM
Dona: Listen! Boromami (Maternal aunt) is here!!
Me: What? (I flung my hand up in despair and tossed the cream cake that I was licking a second ago with joy abandon) No no no….can’t happen.
Dona: It happened but!
Me: Tell her we are not home!
My mother came out from the other room to the common passage and with a wide smile gestured my aunt to come in.
Me: Dona…save me…! (But Dona’s face turned red in fear and I started shaking inside)
Mother (to the aunt): You here, this time? I was about to go out now to buy the sweets. That’s why told these two to visit your place to invite Raju.
Mother (Directing at us): These two…I sent them to extend the invitation…they just now came back.
Aunt: But they didn’t come home…
Me (Assimilating all my inner strength for the first on-your-face blatant lie): What! What you are talking about? We went…you were not there.
Dona: Yes! Only Raju da was around, so we spoke to him and came back.
Mother: But you told me that you had a word with Mami...
Dona: No no, we spoke to Raju da.
Aunt (thoroughly perplexed): When? I was always there at home. Raju, in fact, isn’t around.
Dona: No! You were in the puja room, so we spoke to Raju da.
Me (with sheer force of conviction amidst palpitation): Yes, we did speak to him. You weren’t around.
Aunt (in disbelief): Gah! What you are saying? I have finished puja offering long back. When did you come?
Dona (with a Eureka-styled expression): We went in the afternoon. We didn’t see your flat. The garage was there below, then we saw Panda’s flat in the 2nd floor, only your flat wasn’t there. So we couldn’t find the entrance.
Dona: The 1st floor was totally missing, isn’t it? (Looking at me desperately for an affirmation)
Me (By that time I realized it’s a lost battle but tried to salvage as a last-ditch effort): Yes, we only saw Amrita Panda’s floor in the beginning, and their car also was parked in the ground floor garage, but nothing was there in between.
Dona: Right, nothing in between. No 1st floor. .
Me: Yes, just wasn't there! It was missing...as in we could's see it. Then when we found, we rang the bell thrice. Nobody opened.
Aunt (with a stupefied face): What you guys are talking about? You said you met Raju…
Me: Yes, then later he came and opened the door. You didn’t see anything…? I don’t know how!
Dona: We also didn’t see the 1st floor but… (I gestured her to stop)
Of course the chart is made for indicative purpose, but I did see all shades of blue during the episode within a matter of few minutes.
The ratio proportion increase of our idea generation along with the anxiety parameter!
Cobalt Blue (Even God can't save me today): Overreaction level 80-100
Azure (I have no idea what I'm saying): Overreaction level 50-80
Dark turquoise blue (I can't sound nervous or laugh): Overreaction level 0-50
At this, already fuming, my mother left the scene. She realized long back that we haven’t been at the aunt's place and conjuring up impossible lies to save our faces. When subjected with sudden anxiety owing to the fear of repercussions, we were so much consumed by panic that our overreaction crossed all limits of prudence. Now that I look back at this incident fondly as this went down in the family history of epic debacles, the absurd hilarity of this overreaction tells me a lot about my poor coping mechanism in front of sudden challenges during childhood.
But the day didn’t exactly start on a wrong foot.
Time: 10 AM
It was one pleasant and languid day of winter. Fragrance of aloor dom (a potato based cuisine) and koraisutir kochuri (deep-fried puffy bread with green peas stuffing) along with a slight shiver was captivating the air of my home at Calcutta. Bhai Phonta (a festival primarily celebrated by Hindus where brothers and sisters exchange blessings and gifts, usually accompanied by a sumptuous dish offered by the sister to the brother who would take vow to protect the sister lifelong while she would pray for his well-being) was around the corner.
As a 14-year-old, while festivities and good food were most welcome, I never liked this occasion much. I didn’t know anything about ‘feminism’ or thinly disguised misogyny then, but even my young mind felt this somehow celebrated the fact that a sister would need to put her brother on a pedestal, not on the equal ground. Why both aren't exchanging vows to protect each other, I wondered. And that made me a tad bit uncomfortable, along with my increasing awareness of identity crisis. However, those days it was equally easy to shrug off any feeling of discomfort over a nice Chomchom (a traditional Bengali sweet).
So when my mother asked me to go to one of my cousin brother’s house to invite him for the occasion, I along with my cousin sister, Dona, had no reason not to abide by her. Also, there was not much space for openly exhibiting disagreement with elders those days in our rather conventional lower middle-class household. Every word of instructions from my mother were considered as an ‘order’, not just by me but by other young members of the extended family. No, she wasn’t particularly tyrannical in her approach, just that her presence and overall disciplinarian conduct commanded a certain amount of respect.
The kind of respect that evoked unfounded scare. I didn’t then understand that wasn’t particularly healthy. Fear as a motivator seldom is.
Time: 2:30 PM
I stepped out from my home with the intent of visiting the assigned place for invitation, but on the way I changed my mind and convinced Dona to first pay visit to another cousin’s home who would help me record songs in the blank cassette that I was carrying in my back pocket. Yes, 90's teens used to have such antediluvian needs!
By the time I finished that little act of dissent, it was too late to visit the ascribed home. We were a close-knit family then and most of us used to stay pretty nearby. So I wouldn't be able to justify the time duration. I thought I would find some excuse to visit Raju da’s place in the evening and then would extend invitation for Bhai Phota.
As a heads-up, I requested the other cousin to keep this detour private and in case if anyone would ask, to plainly deny about our presence during that time.
Time: 5 PM
As planned, we came back and I started treating myself with a freshly baked cake while Dona affirmed to my mother about the completion of the task we haven’t even started. We had no idea that Raju da’s mother (aunt) would decide to show up in our place in between. We surely didn’t count on such a bad luck. And then, when finally I had to divulge the real story in front of my mother and aunt, the former, already having lost most of her faith in her otherwise obedient child, wanted to examine that story-line and sent someone to the second cousin’s home to cross-verify.
I, of course, couldn't afford to feel disappointed about this lack of faith on our confession after we made them dizzy with our risible cover-up attempts. And as luck would have it, I already taught that cousin not to divulge the information and hence he mentioned we never came there too!
While my mother didn’t speak to me for rest of the day and maintained a body language of admonition, she had enough sense of humour to laugh with me about it the next day instead of laughing at my childhood delinquency. In most of the typical Bengali clan of those days, one can imagine that a concerned mother in such situation would ask: 'Tui ki prem korchis? Lukiye dekha korte gechili karur saathe?' (Are you seeing someone and went to meet with anyone behind our back?). By the virtue of knowing me quite well, she didn't.
She knew even though a part of me was scared of her reactions, I won't hide anything significant from her and if I were made to do anything against my wish, I might give in for some time to see how it actually feels but if I still didn't like, I would eventually bring my dissension out in the open. This gave me an opportunity to tell her that let the entire family participate if they will, but I won't give 'bhai phonta'!
While she didn't debate 'I don't need this to wish them well', perhaps she was not happy about it for a while. But that's far better than anyone living a lie and being forever unhappy, doing something halfheartedly for the heck of it due to external pressure. This entire comedy of errors was due to triggering anxiety leading to instant overreaction which prevented me to come clean at the first place.
Time: Back to the NOW
While life's school of hard knocks made me more resilient over the course of time and I became more composed in the face of much greater point of contention, this personal recollection makes me thinking about the root cause behind why someone overreacts, or rather why someone behaves in a way what audience perceives as 'overreaction'.
I saw perfectly-sane adults with sweats on foreheads running to report to police after stumbling upon a toy gun in 1992 during the Babri Masjid communal riots, assuming this to be a real weapon at the first glance. While I was en route to Goa on a volvo bus, once an adult mistook the sound of timer of his own alarm clock kept inside of his bag as a possible hidden bomb and created such a ruckus that conductors evacuated the entire bus and the journey got stalled. A colleague once told me that he keeps a glass of water on the tray table during turbulence in flight to estimate the level of disturbance due to air pockets based on the vibration of the water levels! He believed it would make him anticipate any potential danger. After overcoming the initial amusement, my 'But aren't we supposed to keep our tray table up during turbulence?' met with a cold reaction.
Starting from a very inconsequential regular event to a situation of much greater gravitas, like the very recent widespread usage of all kinds of masks by almost everyone on the street to protect themselves from COVID-19 while WHO's directive clearly states that "If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV
infection", overreaction in all shapes and forms shares a common underlying thread: Fear.
The defense generated from this fear makes one act in a certain way which in some cases evoke laughter or surprise in onlookers, and in others, irritation or anger. 'Why are you overreacting so much?' becomes our pet peeve then. The fact of the matter is that when our amygdala gets hijacked creating a fight or flight response in brain in the face of a real or perceived threat, we all are capable of acting in an 'irrational' way. Since we have developed a natural skill for threat perception and estimating 'predacity' of animals for self-protection and survival amidst competing interest from ancient times, our neural network are wired through the course of evolution to respond to the similar stimuli even though the situation at hand, the players, the time and space are totally different.
Research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience suggests that our brain often can't make a good judgement call regarding what's threatening and what's benign in front of a stressor, and thus it alters the perception towards negative for wired need of self-protection, thereby triggering anxiety. Overreaction is a also a form of cry for help or expression of helplessness because Intense pain causes overreaction too. Of course it all boils down to how conscious we are and where we are in terms of our individual progression of evolution and cognitive regulation.
So while a mother screaming from a safari jeep to his grown up son, 'Babu...bagh berochee...sabdhaan!' (Beware! A tiger is coming out from the bush), making the tiger about-turn in fear and change his trajectory back to deep inside the forest made me split my hairs, at some level, I do understand the primal response. Just that it made me wonder why they visited the forest at the first place. Just like investing in mutual funds should come with higher risk-appetite, investing in thrill should come with better threat-appetite.
However, having a faulty threat perception towards excess positivity can be more dangerous. It creates a false sense of confidence and thus the line between a general sense of optimism and stupidly hopeful gets blurred. There are many people who don't 'overreact' per se, and many of us often tend to think they are more sorted (In most unfortunate situations, they are often perceived as being 'right' as opposed to someone who lost their cool, thus punishing emotional responses and rewarding strategic avoidance). Well, not necessarily so. Under the present circumstance, if I propagate a myth like the one in the image and a golfer feels relieved, he suffers from a bigger issue than overreaction!
While overreaction has a clear and strong genetic component of inherent predisposition, people who consistently downplay may suffer from such haughty confidence based on their past experience to hoodwink similar threats or they are emotionally stunted and/or ignorant to properly understand or react to a situation based on its merit. So they prefer to dilute or escape but that often gets wrongly perceived as 'Look, how cool he is! Even in the face of such challenges, he maintained such a calm and laid-back demeanor'.
And then there are the vast majority of herd: We will overreact if the majority and/or the people we like are overreacting about it, we will be dismissive if the majority and/or the people we like are understating! The most dangerous of the lot, in my opinion.
The ideal is of course NOT balance, but trying to see a situation 'as it is' without the lens of our preconceived notions and to create a habit of informed response while maintaining an open mind. In real life, however, within a split-second, we often fail to achieve that. 'Oh, the roof is leaking? Okay, let me study about it, let me remove my usual bias and then I will revert with a response.': this corporate template doesn't work in typical human exchanges. And it sounds awfully boring too. Thus we overreact or trivialize. However, the later does not make any memorable account.
Nobody would have remembered if we'd stayed perfectly calm and dealt with the aunt's arrival with mature confession in the beginning. Nobody would have smiled at the silly innocence. And Raju da, after his mother's death, wouldn't have laughed while mentioning about it (Does he remember any Bhai Phota of 90's with vivid details? I bet not!). No funny anamnesis were made.
PhotoStory Date: 11.11.1996
Words and Photograph: Amrita Ghosh