Some years ago, while I served with the Peace Corps in Northern India (Punjab), my neighbor and good friend Mr. Sharma surprised me with an odd question. We had just finished our regular evening session of two-handed canasta (a game I'd brought from America) and were about to have tea. Although Mr. Sharma, like most educated Indians, spoke fluent English, he was puzzled. He wanted to know what the word "cleavage" meant.
His question embarrassed me. That was partly because Mr. Sharma was an older man (easily old enough to be my father) and partly because he was a very prudish, religious gentleman. Indeed, in the 14 months I'd known him, he had never once mentioned anything remotely prurient or even vaguely off-color, and, of course, as his guest, I never dreamed of mentioning anything like that myself. Such topics were clearly off-limits.
India was a decidedly puritanical country. Other than the jet-setters in the country's largest cities, there was no dating in India. Marriages were arranged by the parents. There was no public suggestiveness, no kissing shown in movies, no flirting, no skimpy clothing, no racy magazines, no nothing. India resembled what I pictured Victorian England to be in the 1850s.
So even though Mr. Sharma had asked me a direct question, I balked at giving him a direct answer. As bizarre as this is going to sound, I feared that my answer could be taken as "vulgar," and might embarrass this pious and culturally sheltered man to the point where it would actually damage our friendship.
Treading cautiously, I casually asked him where he had heard this word. I had to be especially careful here. What if the term had been used in an entirely different context than that of a woman's anatomy? What if it were a harmless reference to something having been "cleaved," like a block of wood or a melon?
If it had been used in this non-anatomical sense, and I proceeded to begin rambling about women's breasts, the man was not only going to be frightened, he was going to think I was a sex fiend. But Mr. Sharma responded that he'd come across this word in a mystery novel, where a character was having a conversation with an attractive woman, and the author described him as having "admired her cleavage."
OK. At least now I knew the context. We were, in fact, talking about breasts. It occurred to me that I had several choices at this juncture. I could've feigned ignorance at this point and insisted that I was unfamiliar with that particular word. Mr. Sharma would have had no reason to doubt me.
Or I could have moved in the opposite direction. I could've buried the subject in a haze of technicality by offering an account that was sanitized and pedantic, explaining to him, hyper-objectively, that "cleavage" was both a physiological and geometric term referring to the measurable distance between a woman's mammary glands. But this would've made me sound more like a clinician than a friend, and would have likely raised even more questions.
Or I could've lied. I could've made up something. People lie all the time to get out of awkward situations, especially trivial ones that don't matter. But lying outright to a friend in order to save us some minor, cross-cultural embarrassment seemed a cowardly thing to do. Also, if he caught me in the lie, it would've been a disaster.
So I reluctantly opted for the truth. I told him that "cleavage" meant "breasts." The man in this mystery novel was admiring a woman's breasts. Mr. Sharma blushed a bit and looked down at the floor as he mulled over my explanation. Then, after a moment, he said rather sheepishly, "I thought so."
David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and author ('It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor'). He can be reached at email@example.com.