Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Its all relative .....

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...:-)


  1. mala tey chitra pahun kharach watla ki hey sagle jan tujhya kade yeoon gele ki kaay? Mala athavtay ki majhi ek mavasbahin jara anganne sudhrud disayla laglya var chhoti choti mula tila kaku mhanayla laagli hoti (ekvisavya varshich) ani tila jaam raag yaycha ki eyyyyyy kaku kai tai mhana kivha maximum maavshi.. kaku biku kahi nahi barka.

  2. When my son was younger, I had him call my neighbors 'aunty' here. And they were fine with it too, but now he just calls everyone by their last name. But when we talk about them at home, they are still 'so and so aunty'. All those Marathi names for relatives became very familiar to me after I got married (my latest post is on somewhat similar lines!).

  3. I strictly enforce the 'aunty' rule for my son, even though his friends sometimes call me by my name (Roshni; not even Mrs C!!). That really makes me wince, though I obviously don't comment on it; after all its their parents who should choose whether to do so or not. I know that folks back home will give the same glare that your mother gave you so its best to teach my sons from an early age what is not acceptable in our culture!
    In Bengal, its so common to call any and everyone bon (younger sister), didi (older sister) mashi (mother's sister) and didu (grandmother) even if you don't know them from Adam!

  4. As usual, hilarious and perceptive (including that refernce to me).

    Interestingly, in Bengali we call the father's brother KAKA or KAKU (which is also the male equivalent of the dreaded AUNTY used for any middle-aged gentleman). The father's brother's wife is KAKIMA or KAKI.

    And BOUDI is the Bengali counterpart of VAHINI, and similarly thrills all newly married women when initially used.

  5. Very interesting and very true. As noted by others above, even I was thrilled when someone addressed me as Vahini. My husband's side follow a very strict rule, even if you are few months elder you need to be addressed as an elder. I find it funny when my brother in laws who are just few months younger to me call me Vhanni (in konkani).

    And we also have strict codes of addressing in laws rt? My mom calls my Kaka as "Bhau" and my Aatya as "Tai", even though they are much younger than her. I have conveniently ignored this rule though.

    Oh and btw while we are on this topic, what should I call you if and when we meet? Given the age difference between us there is no way i can address you by your name, so you pick -- Mavshi, Kaku, Aatya or Aaji ;-)

  6. Oh my how interesting and riveting was that post. I always learn so much coming here. I grew up calling most of my parents friends and aunties and uncles etc by their christian names. Oh how tough would it be to get it wrong and insult someone by calling them the wrong title.

    It was bad enough when suddenly shop assistants start referring to you as Madame when you are barely out of your teens.

    How you must have seen so many changes in 30 years and how wonderful for this young man to remember everything too. He can keep up the Aunty term, too. It must have caused a few people to raise their eyebrows I guess.

    Oh and well done to your daughter for reading her mother's wonderful posts and I am honored if she is reading some of mine too. Tell her to put in a comment or two as well. I would like to hear from her. You never know she may come to visit us some time! Oh by the way, dont believe all the publicity you may be hearing there about our Indian students here either...

    And I cant wait to be called Aji but like you not before we earn the title hey?

    Another great post and I LOVE learning more about your culture. Thank you!!!!

  7. Great post!

    Some of my children's friends call me Aunty and some call me Kaku/Kaki. I like the latter more, though.:)

  8. In my holidays as a kid to Kolkata I used to be overwhelmed by the joint family set up (both sides)amount of jethimas, kakimas, mamis, pishis and mashis (all aunts) and found it difficult to distinguish them from the didis (older sisters) so Ma simplified it for me that touch everybody's feet and anybody wearing skirt or salwar is didi and for others look at your cousins for help!!!

    Years later when I went back (12 yrs) followed my new bro-in-law who whispered to me who was who..... I touched everybody's feet irrespective!!!

  9. Ha Ha Ha... You have depicted the whole 'relative' scene in India very well.
    My elder sister is 'Tai' to all my friends. I sometimes doubt whether they even remember her name. :)
    And one of my close friends stopped calling my mom kaku and now calls her maushi , pretty much for the reason that you mentioned in your post.. :)

  10. Hehe, I rem trying to explain this to a friend of mine, and he thought it was really weird!

    I call parents of my asian friends Aunty and Uncle, but am always at a loss of what to call non-asian parents - Mr&Mrs sounds too formal, calling them by name sounds disrespectful!

  11. lovely lovely post... and funny too...

    you know I m a kutchi who cant speak proper kutchi never been to kutch and called my dad pappa and mummy... but somehow i saw my cousins calling their dad "adha" and it stuck... and my son calls me "adha" and i so love it... I dont know why.. !

    although i can never be called a proper kutchi or a jain.. i think it is somewhere there inside me...

    like u said... its all relative...

  12. Great post! Like Lilly, I always learn something when I come here. Interesting the different ways to address relatives, friends etc. All of our languages have their quirks, I guess. Fun read!

  13. Vinita Actually, mala baheen nahi, tya mule mala mavshi mhatlela kadhihi jyasta pasanta asta :-)

    Sujatha Isnt it interesting that despite so many languages , and even confusing names, we all follow the same philosophy, uncle, aunt and grandmawise ? I wonder how much of it our children will follow when they are adults ....

    Roshni You know, i had an american roommate in the apartment i shared when in grad school in 1970, at UCI, and I am still in touch with her and her family. Her late father had his 97th birthday a few years ago, and I addressed a card to him as Uncle Frank, and everybody was so amused....But I cant call him Mr so-and-so. ...

    Sucharita thanks for enlightening me on all the names. I have a niece in-law who is from Bengal, and she introduced the family to the Kakima stuff. We didnt realize that in Bengal Kakus could actually be Kakas...:-)

  14. I don't like the word Aunty, though love being called just sounds better for me :) I love your addresses to Darlene and Lilly :))

  15. enchanted Actually, there is some merit in the way you are supposed to give respect to certain relations, regardless of age. Kind of points you to a certain path, which makes evaluating new acquaintances easier , say, for a newly married woman, facing a "bharlela ghar".....

    And about what you should call me when I come there in the first week of august (now pucca), I am abolutely fine with, "aho, shuk shuk", or even "hey, you"... no honestly, mavshi would be fine... like I told Vinita above, I dont have a sister, so I love being called Mavshi.

    Lilly Thanks for taking time out this week to read the post.You might be interested to know that my daughter is so used to all this aunty/aji behaviour, that 2 years ago, when we were in the US for my sons masters graduation, we visited a family friend whose mother is 90 .(She has figured in some blogs of mine). When it was time to leave, we all bent and touched her feet. (her son has lived extensively here and explained the sudden bending to her. But all this surely makes things interesting. And I will pass on your msg to my daughter...

    Manju Aunty sounds a bit "ati vishaal" if you know what I mean, and I feel mavshi and Kaku has more charm...

    Ranu Isnt this strange. I used to follow exactly the same policy, 34 years ago when suddenly faced by an entire phalanx of elderly aunts -in-law .....

    G I think by now you will had got some additions to your "relative" vocabulary, from the Mnangalore side ?

    Chapati best way to get your friends to understand this stuff is get them to visit here during some wedding etc...:-)

    Hitchwriter Hmm. Adha. Thats a new one for me. Need to find out more. ...never heard of a man being called Adha though I have heard of a woman being called Ardhangini....

    Sylvia Sometimes there is more than one Kaka, and then they get classified in various ways like, Big and Small, and sometimes even as DelhiKaka, Mumbaikaka, based on where they live. :-)

    Braja Me too. I think Mavshi (masi in the north), is so much nicer.... and I thought both Lilly and Darlene were wonderful as Lillimavshi and Darlene Aji....

  16. I am so honored to be called Aji. Thank you for giving me a title. I don't think anyone has ever called me 'Grandmother'in English as a greeting, but I love Aji.

    When I was a child we were taught to never call any adult by their first names; they were Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so. That show of respect has vanished in our casual society.

    Now even children call me Darlene. My doctor, dentist and their receptionists call me Darlene. Some women my age consider it a lack of respect to be addressed by their first names but I don't mind it; however, now I think I will demand to be called Aji.

  17. Aunty Ugich, I have re-posted the cartoons on my blog if you care to revisit me. I was unable to do a good job because blog spot has a mind of it's own and I finally had to delete one because blog spot kept moving it on top of the others. I do hope they are visible now.

  18. I love your writing. Tumche lekhan vachun mala majha ajjichi athvan yete :(
    Ata tar meech aunty zhali aahe for kids as big as 17-18 sometimes!!!

  19. I'm astonished they called you Mrs. However, I live in the United States and children here have lost almost all manners.

    Your post is very interesting. In languages the more important something is the more words there are for that thing or person. Kindness must be the common factor in the Indian language.


  20. Mrs. and Mr. are respectful ways to address an adult by a child. Mine were very good at using the Mr. and Mrs. Sometimes I think they must have thought the older people I knew odd to have the same first name for all of them.

  21. I thoroughly enjoyed your post! "Aunty of a Faculty member" ~ I like that and can see why you take joy in it.

    It's different in different families even in the US.

    For my Dad's side, it's "Aunt" and "Uncle." However, for my mother's side - we were told not to use those labels - we call our relatives by the first name, minus even the "Mrs." (In fact, if we call them "aunt/uncle" offense is taken on Mom's side!)

    Some of my cousins have children and their children call me "aunt." We don't have a set of rules, I suppose it's just what's wanted. I have to admit, it's nice being called Aunt :-)

  22. Awesome post. Yes, in India everyone becomes an Aunty. In US, infact people call there parents-in-law by first name. It is pretty common. But somehow "Aunty" always make me feel older. :(

  23. Hehe, I remember whenever I go to the bhaji walas at Matunga Market on my trips to Mumbai now...I used to be called 'baby' as a kid when I trudged behind my naana holding a small striped plasticky shopping bag for masala - the adrak, kadipatta, kotmir, chilli mix which I'd carry while he took the heavier bag with the veggies, a decade or so on, I was Behenji, then Bhabhiji and now some of them call me Auntyji!! Feels very funny somehow.

  24. Darlene Thank you. And should you ever visit India, you can rest assured, every person you meet in a middle class milieu , like, a market, a mall , just any shop, or even a three wheeler rickshaw person will address you as Aji. And like Braja said above, I dont like being called Aunty,, but Mavshi is great. However, since u are so much elder to me , you get to call me something like, hey you Ugich ! And yes, I can now see the cartoons on your blog.... wonderful !

    Shilpa Thank you. Ani mage waloon baghtana, apan Tai chya, baghta baghta, Aji kashya zalo tyachi maja watate...Just curious. Tu Mumbai madhe ahes , ka itaratra kuthe ?

    Amber star Thank you

    Aleta Thank you. Sometimes I feel, this kind of auntification etc, allows us to visualize ourselves , as we grow older, in different responsible roles; something that probably keeps some people nicely away from worrying about things like, not looking young, appearance of wrinkles, and losing in the compepetion with A. Jolie....:-)

    Joy I guess , who ever added Jai Ho to the dictionary, can now start thinking of adding Mavshi and kaku.... way nicer than Aunty, no ?

    A. I. This transition from baby to Aunty is so seamless. No special effort, no antiwrinkle creams, no worry about crows feet. And soon you will be in the market with your little one, and she will be called baby !

  25. We have names like that in Hindi
    Mausi, Bua, Chachi/ Taiji/ and so on and their male equivalents.

    I used to like the address by relationship deal, now I am happier being just called by my name.

  26. Don't know about that UK, I seem to take her to air conditioned green grocers in Pune or those individual thela walas ...few and far between - literally. I guess Matunga Market is an institution which has to be all the other old bhaji wala/wali haunts in Mumbai.

    Next time I go, I'll be sure to take an unhurried tour of the tokris alongwith her. :)

  27. Ugich maushi, mee Virginia madhe rahte pan ami Hyderabad che, although I was in Mumbai for a few years.

  28. May I tell you what a marvelous word "auntification" is?
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  29. alankrita Thank you for your comments.

    A.I. Dont forget to take her to the Dosa places when you introduce her to Matunga Market :-)

    Peter Rozovsky Thank you, yes you may. Back here in India, some of us don't wait for the hallowed Oxford dictionary types to agree to add "native" words to their product. Its more fun like this :-)

  30. A heart warming post. :) I have acquired a lot of names since I started blogging: Shail, Shail di, Shail Aunty, Shail ji, Shikari Shailji, Shail Edathi, Shail chechi... it goes on. Of course in real life I am also Shail Ammoomma, as my nephews and nieces are already parents themselves :)

  31. This is so very interesting! Aha! So you use "Aunty" instead of "Auntie" in India.