Recently, I read about a furore created over the word ‘aunty’. Apparently, the aggrieved person had barely stepped into her forties and hence, vehemently rebuffed this tag! The incident generated mixed reactions. A section of the public sympathised with the ‘victim’ and slammed it as a classic example of ‘age-shaming’. I, personally, felt neither indignation nor indifference — it simply brought a smile to my face. And revived a cache of memories that were three decades old.
I entered the Indian Air Force fraternity as a bride when I was all of twenty-three. While I was still attuning myself with its very different but absolutely fascinating code of social conduct, I encountered what was probably the most startling experience of my fledgling married life. As a freshly hitched couple, we were invited to dinner by several fellow officers and seniors. Every evening brought with it, the charm of visiting aesthetically done up houses and interacting with genuinely affable hosts. During one such visit, after exchanging pleasantries, after going over all the new names in my head and trying to slot them with the correct faces, I was just settling down in the plush sofa, when all of a sudden, a bunch of boisterous youngsters burst upon the scene. Fresh from a gruelling basketball session, they looked sweaty and breathless, but nonetheless, exuberant. The 17-18-year-olds took turns to greet each of the guests politely. Followed by the usual “which class are you in…what do you plan to do after school…” rhetoric, fielded by the adults.
I was intently listening to the discussions, remembering my own high school and college capers when I heard someone say, “Good evening Aunty, how are you? I’m Ekta, and that’s my dad,” gesturing to our host of the evening. I made a mental note of the girl’s name and turned around to see who Ekta was speaking to. I was flummoxed to see Ekta, and all her friends, looking directly at me and taking turns to nod a courteous hello! They all looked like eager beavers, curious to know me better. I looked around, just to make sure that I wasn’t mistaken, and that they were actually speaking to me. To my utter dismay, I realised that that, indeed, was the case. The unwritten rule book of defence etiquette mandated all married ladies to be addressed as ‘aunty’ by officers’ wards, irrespective of the age difference. Or rather, the lack of it! And thus, from a footloose, pony-tailed college goer, I overnight graduated to being an ‘aunty’ of all the neighbourhood kids…kids who were barely 5-6 years younger than me! Did I feel maternal? Certainly not! Was I embarrassed or upset? Strangely, no! In fact, I felt kind of smug…happy, in the new-found gravitas the tag bestowed on me. It carried the thrill of a promotion, something that my 23-year-old self heartily welcomed.
And thus, the years rolled on. And the tag stayed with me. Eventually, I reached the fabled forties. We quit the Forces and relocated to civilian territory in Bangalore. There, I got to perceive the term from a totally new perspective. Silver-haired shop owners, fruit vendors, plumbers, cab drivers and others called me ‘aunty’, partially to accord respect, and largely to make up for the absence of a more suitable form of address. This time, coming from people older than me, it hurt a little. But I accepted my predicament with grace and equanimity. Now, I’ve entered my hallowed fifties. Auntyism has grown on me – in fact, it behoves me well. Like old friends who have weathered many a storm together, I now actually relish this term and slowly savour the brew of eclectic and endearing memories it whips up.
Aunties of the world, unite – may our tribe grow, prosper, and inspire!!