Proxy relations

Proxy relations

India is one large family if the form of address is taken as the point of reference. For instance, the dhobhi comes in with a neat pile of ironed clothes and calls out to me as ‘akka.’ I almost tell her to address me as madam, but hold myself back as I feel she may take this as a taunt to denigrate her. She seems to be my age and I am mollified that at least she calls me akka instead of the other familiar word ‘auntie.’

The word ‘auntie,’ originating as an affectionate form of address, is pronounced in various tones by different persons, and to bear different effects. I’ve heard boys use the word derogatively at a young girl just to poke fun at her sartorial style. When decently clad women, exuding an aura of dignity, are addressed as aunties, I wonder if the persons so addressing them fondly wish for some relationship with them.

But I was taken aback when a salesman at a giant retailer, with grey streaks on his pate and an ugly gleam in his eye, needlessly addressed me, “Auntie, how are you doing? Don’t buy the organic products, they are very costly. Buy loose from outside.” I managed a tolerant smile with some emotional labour and wondered if the ‘loose’ employee should be reported to the management.

I remember a landlord — well past his retirement and some three decades my senior — with well-maintained plastered oily black hair, and exuding a strong perfume. He considered it his privilege to ring my door bell and announce, “Auntie, the water has come!” I would fret and fume as I was young enough to be his daughter and the husband would try to pacify me by opining that maybe the address was a mark of respect.

Later, I was to understand that in that town, each one was an aunty or uncle to the other. Slowly, I got used to hearing the word as a form of address from the landlady to me, from the maid to the landlady, the landlady herself to the maid, and so on. There was no escape and I took pity on my beautiful name which morphed into ‘aunty’ most of the time. Fortunately, it was ‘madam’ at office, at least. The male species has not been spared either, a balding pate at times being the criterion for calling one an ‘uncle.’

As I keep transiting across other towns, the address changes to ‘akka’ or ‘anna’ which seems more acceptable as it makes the addressee belong to the same generation. Western folks may endorse neither of this as each one there is either a sir or madam — including the Pater as in the Victorian era — or simply addressed by the unique name one is blessed with, or just not addressed at all.  It would be a straightaway, ‘Hi’ or ‘Excuse me…’ in most western cultures. But here in India, I move about as aunty or akka to all and sundry, and wait for the day when I may start being addressed as ‘ajji’!

But isn’t it a contradiction that with so much bonhomie and Vasudaiva kutumbakam-ism shown through the form of such addresses, incidents like Nirbhaya continue to happen every other day?

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