We all know that while people in our neck of the woods are generally inquisitive about each other, putting it kindly. The way we gawp at road accident victims without actually helping them, the endless questions one is asked at the doctor’s clinic or on the Daewoo (nothing like four hours trapped inside a bus to really get the conversation going); we just love finding out the minutiae of each other’s lives without it eliciting any kind of empathy or feeling of closeness with one’s fellow human. It’s routine. But while this kind of gentle interrogation is normal for us and almost expected, what I find irksome and on the increase is the Judgement In Disguise form of unwanted advice. Gone are the good old days when you were asked about your marital status, how many children you have, what colour gharara you wore at your wedding and the colour of your socks. Now people will accost you as you are quite ordinarily browsing clothes in a shop and ask you where your dupatta is, and if you have one, why isn’t it on your head? Haven’t you read the Quran? This actually happened to someone I know, so for once the lady doth not protest too much.

People think they can say things like this because they come wrapped in that most convenient paper: mainstream, unimaginative morality. We think we are perfectly entitled to pass comment on other people’s lives and mannerisms because we have the backing of God and Society, and anyone who disagrees is obviously a degenerate. One of the help recently chided my four year old to eat her ice cream with her right hand. I heard him, and quite politely asked him not to police my child—if I, her mother, who gave birth to her and watches hawk-like over her every move (borderline OCD if you ask me), have not thought this an issue then it is certainly nobody else’s place to tell my child what to do. I could tell he disagreed with me, but didn’t verbalise it: I was, in his eyes, being lax for allowing my daughter to be incorrect. After all, one is religiously instructed to do everything with one’s right hand, the left being reserved only for dirty unmentionable tasks. As a southpaw, I take exception to that and can safely assure you that that is all bunkum. But we got The Dread Advice because someone thought we were falling on the wrong side of god’s law.

This frightens me. I find it disturbing that anyone, be it the people in one’s house or a stranger in a shop, feel like they can take these kinds of liberties. It is not a harmless question one asks to pass the time, but an active, pointed comment on what is essentially a most private thing. When other people take the policing of morality upon themselves, scary things happen. IS and the Taliban have taught us that time and time again. It also says something about us as people—don’t we have other, better things to be doing than noticing who is wearing what? And isn’t it ironic, to say the least, that most of these rules happen to be the ones that revolve around women? How many men reading this column have been asked why they haven’t grown a beard, or why their shalwar hasn’t been pulled up over their ankles? I have never told anyone what hand to do anything with, but some random uncle thought it perfectly all right to approach my sister outside the hall where she was sitting an O level examination and tell her quite sternly to drink from her water bottle with her right hand. Anyone who has sat a big exam knows that in the fifteen minutes between papers you don’t give a hoot which hand you’re using to drink your water from, you just drink and dive back into quadratic equations and the kinds of coal found in Sindh. That mean uncle didn’t consider any of that, he saw what he thought of as a transgression and marched up to a kid and told her off. He obviously didn’t feel any empathy or even indifference to what is indeed a negligible issue, only self-righteous indignation.

Remember the film that Shaan made, ‘Khuda Ke Liye’? Remember that fabulous scene with the gramophone-playing character acted by Naseeruddin Shah, who declares ‘deen main darhi hai, darhi main deen nahin’? That meant that some practices are recommended by religion, but espousing them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re religious. No wonder we’re so confused and angry when it comes to piety—we spend all our time fixating on the small aspects of faith, the extras that are bonuses, really, instead of looking at the big picture, the things that really matter. Instead of trying not to be bribers or taking bribes we are being mean to children for using the ‘wrong’ hand. Instead of being kind to our neighbours and looking after relatives that need it, we’re doing haw-hai because someone didn’t cover their head during the azaan. This isn’t an attempt at helpfulness. It’s being utterly divorced from the humanizing effect religion is supposed to have on us. Instead of making us better people, we use our notions of piety to whack each other on the head with, and to me that makes a mockery of something that is beautiful. For what better way to exist than with love, and compassion?