The 'aunty' syndrome

Right in the Middle

Bubbles of gay laughter and a ubiquitous feeling of cheer prevailed when we were returning home from the Dasara mela after having had a merry time. Then something happened that adulterated the blissful atmosphere — ‘Aunty!’ a youth roughly in his mid-20s, marched forward addressing my mum.

“Kindly visit my food stall, aunty,” the youth invited spiritedly. I felt my mother stiffen. ‘Aunty!’ seemed to be spreading insidiously over every pore of her being. She looked him straight in the eye and icily remarked: “You are driving all your customers away by calling them them aunty.” The youth realised his blunder promptly — “So sorry, madam. Please take a seat.”

The chap after his initial faux pas became even more of the zestful host. He pointed to me and remarked: “Madam, your little girl has very intelligent eyes. I am sure she’s going to be a great person one day”. My mother eyed me sceptically. My ‘intelligent’ eyes, near slits, the benediction of puppy fat covering my cheeks were fixed on the huge masala dosa in front of me. His remark hadn’t even registered in my monomaniacal food-obsessed brain. Besides, I had scored poorly in the morning’s maths test.
Nevertheless, mom smiled at the young man, her indignation somewhat quelled.
Not many years later I was to be a victim of ‘auntism.’ One Deepavali night when I was 10, a group of adolescent boys emerged from nowhere and asked me: “Aunty, give us a few crackers too”. I turned a queer pallor and kept obstinately mum. My good friend, ever loyal, heard them and said: “Drop the aunty and she’ll give you”. The lads promptly did. They were then given crackers and savories for this kindness.

During vacations after my first year degree exams, I was appointed ‘sketching teacher’ by our neighbours who had organised a summer camp. I was called ‘Miss’ or ‘Akka’ by most of the Kalarthis — students of art (a word coined by my dad). I was quite content until one tall specimen who was in the ninth grade asked: “Aunty, how do I shade this tree?” I accepted this stoically. I was no longer a neophyte to ‘auntism’ after having been bestowed the sobriquet at the inchoate age of 10 by kids older than I was.

Most people hate bearing the insignia of ‘auntism.’ My mom and I are no different. I wonder who harbingered this term; it’s caught on like wild fire in India. Many people use ‘madam’ or the good old first name, but incidents of aunty-calling are still rife. Take for instance our middle aged neighbours, tailors, shopkeepers et al who call mom ‘aunty.’ I grimace. Mom who has turned a little mellow over the years explains: “Aunty is just a proxy for madam. It indicates respect.”

I earnestly hope other ladies who fret and fume over untimely ‘auntism’ learn to brush it off as coolly.

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