Not too long ago, I found myself in the company of a gathering of Aunties.

The circumstances that led to me being there were not unusual: After a tiring day out, I’d reached my front door only to discover that my keys were on the wrong side of it. One of my neighbours took pity on my scatter-brained self and invited me in. She appeared to be hosting a tea party in which I was forcibly politely included.

After a deeply intrusive interrogation (What’s your name? What do you study? How many boyfriends have you had?) performed with the forwardness one would only expect from Indian Aunties, they decided I was pretty much harmless and went back to the conversation that my arrival had interrupted.

The most vocal of them, a rather intimidating lady with a voice that made one appreciate the existence of noise-cancelling instruments, went on a rant about someone called Rita.

“And did you see what she wore to Sharmaji’s son’s wedding?” she screeched, doing her best to look scandalized. The next twenty minutes were spent scrutinizing each aspect of Rita’s outfit in painful detail and discussing why it didn’t meet her standards of modesty. There were murmurs of agreement and others pitched in with their own accounts of Rita’s misdemeanours.

Maybe it was something in the tea or maybe they ran out of things to complain about or maybe they just really hated Rita, but by the time I had finished my second samosa, the conversation had progressed to how Rita endorsed animal abuse because she didn’t donate to PETA.

It was around this time that I noticed that Aunty P, sitting across from me, hadn’t said a word yet. She had been watching the proceedings with the nervousness of a kleptomaniac at a cop convention. She appeared to be new to the group and, judging by her silence, hadn’t had enough contact with Rita to contribute anything useful to the discussion. I turned my attention back to the conversation.

“Isn’t she the worst?” one of the Aunties was saying, in conclusion to the passionate speech she’d just made about how Rita’s morning runs were damaging the environment.

There was a soft cough from Aunty P’s direction. Everyone turned to look at her. Caught by surprise at the unwanted attention, she looked from one face to another in panic before finally uttering her first hesitant words of the evening.

“Well… She’s not that bad. She helped me carry my groceries the other day.” she mumbled, her tone almost apologetic. (I mentally cheered. Poor Rita finally had an ally).

A hush fell over the room. Three pairs of steely eyes glared at her with emotions ranging from shock to disbelief. With each tense moment that passed in silence, it was becoming increasingly apparent that P might not be getting invited to the next chai party.

Realizing that it had been the wrong thing to say, she made some frantic attempts at damage-control. It took several minutes and two anecdotes of how she’d personally been offended by Rita’s life choices to convince the others that she hadn’t strayed from the path to what seemed to be their one true goal of Ruthlessly Ragging on Rita.

We were warned about peer pressure when we entered our teens. What they didn’t tell us, apparently, was that it never really goes away for some. Maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong Aunties, but it was enlightening to see that not everyone outgrows their dependance on the approval of their peers.

Even now, recalling the terrified look on P’s face that day as she fumbled to undo her faux pas, I can’t help but shake my head at her lack of integrity. I start to ponder on how her meekness affects other aspects of her life (maybe she gives up her ladies seat on the bus to men who demand it) but I don’t dwell on it; there are things that need to be done, like finding out who this Rita is and digging up some dirt on her. I gotta be prepared for the next time I get locked out.