One of the beauties of nomenclature of "relationships", in languages , in India, and specifically my language, Marathi, is the way we have different names for different relatives, who may possibly be the same seniority level, vis-a-vis, say, you, but, have these little culturally ordained tick marks hinting at intrinsic superiority, preordained closeness, respectfulness-at-a-distance, and so on.
What is again intriguing, and something we have always taken for granted , is, how we use these names to interact and relate with people absolutely unrelated, and even unknown to us. Every child in India, automatically picks up the tradition of calling and addressing completely unknown folks, older to him/her, as an aunt/uncle etc, in a particular way. When I went to the US in 1969 for graduate school, my first trip outside my country, ever, I was absolutely aghast at little children addressing grown ladies as Mrs so-and-so, and whats more, the Mrs treating it as a perfectly normal thing to say ....
My earliest introduction to this was when, as a elementary school kid, I called a neighbor lady as Mrs so-and-so, while announcing her unexpected arrival at the door to my mother, and earned myself a maternal glare of the worst category. Calling someone your mother's age as Mrs so-an-so, to her face was a complete no-no. You had to always refer to such ladies as "aunties". eg. Sucharita aunty.
Within this auntification, there was a fine distinction between names like "Mavshi" (mother's sister), "Kaku" (father's brother's wife). I have always wondered why no one was ever called by the name "Atya" (father's sister). You could always take more liberties with a Mavshi than a Kaku. Mavshis' emanated an aura of informality, whereas with Kaku's you had to mind your P's and Q's.
Older males, your father's age, were always, invariably addressed as "Kaka" or Uncle (father's brother). "Mama" was the word to denote mother's brother, but you really didn't go around calling visiting older males, Mama. This nomenclature was fiercely guarded by actual Mamas, who were your actual place of refuge during school summer holidays and so on.
If you met some one's grandmother, or someone who looked like a grandma, you addressed her as "Aji", regardless of whether you associated her from the maternal or paternal side. The older the relations , the more you ignored the path, and concentrated on the relation . An elderly gentleman was always referred to as "Ajoba" or grandfather, regardless of whether he was one. He could be a confirmed bachelor at the age of 86 and you still called him an "Ajoba".
As we grew up, we learnt the nuances of addressing people in our own generation. Your brother's wife was always referred to and even addressed as "Vahini" . While amidst actual relatives your attitude depended on whether the Vahini was of a respectful age or backslapping age, you always addressed lesser known wives of better known unrelated fellows, as Vahini. I distinctly remember playing a badminton mixed doubles game with my husband as partner, sometime in the late 70's, and our opponent yelling out "Great shot, Vahini !". Even then, in the days when wearing short skirts while playing was not given a second look, this guy calling out to me as Vahini, was actually considered archaic and entertaining, by modern types. But the Vahini in me was appreciative and thrilled.
It is pertinent to note that I did not know this guy but had seen him on the courts, and nobody thought anything odd about this exclamation.
While I have been through the stages of being addressed as "Bal" (Child), "Tai"(elder sister, by assorted neighborhood younger girls)," Mavshi"(aunt), " Kaku"(aunt), " Bai" (lady) , what has been eyeopening , is my ascent to an even higher level.
I was recently in the market, sifting through a heap of Alphonso mangoes, smelling and selecting specific ones to buy, and the vendor, slightly new to our area, called out , "Aji (Grandmother) ! if you select all the mangoes with so much checking, what will the others get ?" ...."... A part of me felt like I was graduating :-), and another part of me unconsciously raised my hand to push back those strands of grey that were wasting their time at the temple and the neck....
But the final straw, which was like getting an honorary degree, was something that happened a few years ago when I was still working. I have lived on the campus of this Institute for more than 30 years, and I have seen an entire generation of children grow from being kindergarten kids, walking to school holding their mothers hand, to lanky chaps in corduroys, , in their twenties, walking to the gate to catch transport for their place of work.
I was out in the office corridor, checking up the notice board about some events and lectures, when I felt a shadow loom . I looked up, and saw someone who I knew from fifteen years earlier as a schoolboy in half pants, now suddenly all grown up , with a tie and a jacket, but with the same look on his face.
"Aunty ! Seeing you after so many years !", and he went nineteen to the dozen about my family, and our common neighbors, who he was in touch with and so on. Turned out that he was in our department for a faculty interview, having just completed his doctorate from one of US's outstanding Universities. After getting complete updates on his family, who was where, who got married, who had children, etc I wished him well. We left.
A month later, I was in the office , checking my mail in the mailbox , when I heard a breezy "Hi Aunty!" , and suddenly, about 16-20 pair of eyes settled on me, some with imperceptibly raised eyebrows. While Sir and Ma'am, were the order of the day, and times had surely changed, faculty members calling another employee 'Aunty' , and that too, in a ringing voice, was just considered a bit much.
I actually reveled in every one's confusion and discomfiture. With a noticeable left brain predominance around me, this little right brained interjection was in the fitness of things, according to me, in the interests of everyone remaining in balance. ....
He had successfully done his interviews and got selected as a faculty member. He was in the office to complete some remaining formalities.
A few years later, I opted for retirement due to some other reasons, but throughout the time that this guy was there, he always addressed me as Aunty . Loudly and clearly.
And I always responded. Like an Aunty.
Between all the Aunty, Tai, Vahini, Bai, and Aji, being the Aunty of a Faculty member in one of India's premier engineering Institute was an unmatched honor...
P. S. My daughter , who is aware of some of my blogging friends outside India, and sometimes condescends to read this blog , (when she is not busy doing her hair etc), is having a great time laughing about Lilly Mavshi, June Aji, and Darlene Aji. Ladies, welcome to India...:-)