Madam Sir

There was a news report about lady police officers in Gujarat having issued orders that they must be addressed as ‘Sir’ and not as ‘Ben’ as Gujaratis are prone to do out of respectful deference.

The news sent my mind into recall.

In the 1990s, when the lady officers were introduced in to the Indian Army, I was visiting an engineers regiment doing bridging training somewhere in Uttar Pradesh.

At a particular stand a young lady captain reported the parade to me as per norms.

She was appropriately and smartly turned out for the occasion.

However, her somewhat awkward footwear caught my eyes.

The front portion of her regulation DMS (directly moulded sole) boots had risen up in a curve.

The commanding officer had sensed my observation and informed me that Capt Priya’s shoe size was 5 while the unit did not have any pair smaller that size 7.

These were not the only teething problems as I learnt from the Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) during my interaction that followed over tea and pakoras.

Manner of reporting the parade to a lady officer was equally confusing. The accepted method of reporting the total number present by a JCO to an officer is ‘… all ranks parade par upasthit hain, Shrimaan.’

This honorific of Shrimaan could not obviously be used for ladies.

Use of its Hindi opposite ‘Shrimati’ would be even more outrageous.

In the absence of instructions the JCOs had improvised their own variants. Quite a few called them ‘sir’ as the Gujarat police officers also subsequently demanded.

Some used ‘Madam’ as the form of address. The English word ‘madam’ is derived from the French ‘ma dame’ meaning my lady.

In France and the Francophone countries ‘madame’ is considered respectable and is much in use.

However, in British colloquial parlance it may be referred to a brothel owner and could be found objectionable. Some other JCOs innovated the safe-playing ‘Madam Sir’ in their communication.

The English may scoff at the term but then jugaad is the Indian hallmark and the Army excels in it.

To resolve our immediate problem of addressing we decided to use the term ‘Sahib’ that sounded inoffensive and seemed workable for both sexes.

Indian Army had been an all-male affair till recently.

In the regulations there exists enough material on dealing with ‘brother’ officers.

There has been nothing about dealing with ladies donning an officer’s uniform.

I do hope the military has since evolved the appropriate glossary and methodology to properly address their lady officers.

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