My neighbour’s 15-year-old was standing outside, when I opened my front door. "Can I borrow the newspaper…Aunty?" she asked. I handed the daily to her with my best smile and no indication of the storm that raged within me. "…Aunty" the word continued to ring in my ears – here I was still on the right side of thirty and not yet picturing myself as "Aunty". To me, Aunty conjured up an image of a 50-year-old, someone matronly wearing a sari and of ample girth!
The first time it happened was a few years ago, at a party soon after my marriage. I was conversing with a girl who had just entered college and was non-plussed when she suddenly asked, "What does Uncle do?" At first I had no idea what she meant and which uncle she referred to. I did not see any uncles anywhere in the vicinity when it dawned on me. Of course she meant my husband who probably seemed old to her. I soon tried to get away from her as I was unprepared for what would surely follow. After all, Uncle’s wife was Aunty and I was not ready to swallow that bitter pill then.
Today, five years later, I am Aunty to my maid, cook and other domestic help as well as all the children aged 3 to 20 in my apartment complex. You would think with so many nieces and nephews, I would be reconciled to this moniker, yet my mind rebels at being grouped along with other aunties.
In the beginning when I would correct people a few years younger, I was greeted with suspicion and sympathy. They assumed that I was having a hard time accepting my age and would simply nod their heads. It took me quite a while to reconcile myself to the reality of being addressed thus. My husband consoles me with the insight that Aunty is infinitely preferable to being called "Mamee"! Though Mamee literally means maternal uncle’s wife in Tamil, it is also widely used to address a married woman.
Once when my brother was visiting from the US he addressed one of my mother’s friends as Mamee. The lady in question coyly said, "Oh don’t call me Mamee or Aunty!" and offered no further suggestion. So what did she want to be called? ‘Akka’ or ‘Didi’? That too with a 20-year gap between the two parties concerned?
On my last visit to Delhi it was a refreshing change to be addressed as ‘Behenji’ or ‘Bhabhiji’ by strangers. It seemed to lend some respectability to my status as a married woman. "Oh, it’s all in your mind" was the pat reply from my spouse everytime I taxed him for an explanation.
At a recent wedding, when I observed a twenty-something’s horrified reaction to my 2-year-old greeting her as Aunty, I realised the wisdom of my husband’s words. Somehow the transition from Aunty to Mamee no longer seems terrifying.
This article appeared in the Deccan Herald a while ago.
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