Terms of Address: What to Call People in India

In response to my mumblings about “signora” vs “signorina,” Yuti writes:

In India, as you know, we are all related to each other. Kids routinely call complete strangers “Uncle” and “Aunty”, maid-servants call the woman of the house Bhabhi (brother’s wife), and the elderly are instantly your parents or grandparents (Maa-ji, Bapu-ji, etc). And so I have taken particular interest in what appellations complete strangers have used for me over the years.

As a young girl and teenager, I was a Beti (daughter), although I recall at least one occasion on which I was actually called “Daughter” in English by an elderly salesman. As a young “westernized” woman in my 20s, I would be called shishter (sister). If, however, I was dressed in Indian clothes (rather than jeans and t-shirt), I’d be called didi (older sister) if the person was much younger, or behen (sister) if the person was older. In my 30s, I noticed a gradual shift from shishter and didi to bhabi-ji (brother’s wife, with the extra respect of ji thrown in). Now, in my 40s, I am still mostly bhabhi-ji, unless I am accompanied by my children, in which case I graduate to “Aunty-ji”. With men, the shift is more or less parallel, from beta (son) to bhaiyya (brother) to “uncle”. I now await with consternation the day I finally become Maa-ji (mother), or even worse Dadi-ma (grand-mother). That’s when I’ll know I’ve well and truly aged!!

I asked Yuti for some clarification:

But why bhabhi, brother’s wife, instead of (I don’t remember the words) husband’s sister, etc.? And, in India and/or with Indian friends, even I am Deirdré-aunty to my friends’ kids. Which begs another question: why not the Hindi equivalent of aunty?

Yuti answered:

Yes, there are various words that can be and are used… these are just the ones most common in Mumbai, where the local lingo is a mish-mash of Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English. In various parts of India you may find Mausi (mother’s sister), Chachi (father’s brother’s wife), etc., but these are generally for older women. For a younger woman, Didi and Bhabhi are more appropriate. Bhabhi also acknowledges your status as a married woman, and therefore, presumably due the “respect” that comes automatically with marriage. Second, it also denotes a direct relationship to a close relative (i.e., the person is saying he is your husband’s brother), so you can trust them. These are just theories from the top of my head, and I seriously doubt such thoughts go through anyone’s head when they call me bhabhi, but that is probably part of the reason for its wide usage. Another possibility could have been wife’s sister, but the word in question (saali) is also used as a swear-word, so that won’t do! Also, words for relations tend to differ in different parts of the country. Bhabhi is one of the few which is more or less the same everywhere and also in languages other than Hindi.

I feel that the reason you are called Aunty rather than any Hindi equivalent – firstly, I think kids probably think it is cool to use English words (especially to a foreigner). Second, kids may not know (at least when they’re very young) that each word denotes a specific relationship, for example, they may know that both “chacha” and “mama” are uncles, but may not know that a chacha is always your father’s brother, whereas a mama is always your mother’s brother. Or, perhaps, even if they DO know, they must wonder as to whom they should relate you to – their mother or their father. So, the neutral Aunty is better!

Zafar adds some more thoughts and experiences on Indian terms of address:

[But why bhabhi, brother's wife, instead of (I don't remember the words) husband's sister etc. etc.?]

Slightly more distant/less familiar? Though I think it’s probably a Bombay thing…in Delhi men shamelessly call women behenji (sisterji) with no thought for propriety.

[And, in India and/or with Indian friends, even I am Deirdre-aunty to my friends' kids. Which begs another question: why not the Hindi equivalent of aunty?]

The generic thing:

I agree with Yuti that ‘Aunty’ is the generic fall-back. I’s also never used with your actual (biologically related) aunts, who are almost ALWAYS the Hindi (or whatever) word. In my own experience I also used Maasi etc. with very close friends of my parents, while Aunty was for everybody and anybody. (Er… unless they were Uncle, of course.)

The gender aspect:

Those couples who were friends of my parents and who had graduated, so to speak, beyond Uncle/Aunty to the Indian words when addressed, were called:

The men: Chacha (Father’s brother) and
The women: Maasi (Mother’s sister).

While the superficially correct thing to do (since they were married to each other) would have been to call them ‘Chacha and Chachi (father’s brother’s wife)’, the whole point of the exercise was to place these unrelated adults in a family context – at which point it became more ‘proper’ (and completely unconscious) to classify the women as your mother’s sisters and the men as your father’s brothers.

The ethnicity/language aspect:

Oddly enough, language/ethnicity also comes into this. (Which might explain why the instinctive ‘Deirdre Aunty’ in your case.) Sticking to mother’s friends, for the sake of consistency/simplicity, these included:

Devahuti Maasi (Punjabi Hindu)
Suchandra Mashi (Bengali Hindu, hence Maasi transforms to Mashi)
Zehra Khala (Gujarati Muslim, hence the use of the Urdu version, Khala, for Maasi.)

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