We Bengalis have a special characteristic. We tend to setup familial relationships with almost any person we get acquainted with, especially when they are older than us. We cannot just address them by their names. We always want them to be our brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents etc.
We do it with good intentions. We feel that it would be irreverent of us to address the middle aged gentleman we just met as “Arunabho” or “Satyen”. Addressing them by their first name is next to impossible. So we need to make a quick judgment call and decide what relationship we would like to establish with this new friend. Based on the looks, if the gentleman or lady seem to be close to our age, we try to make them our elder brother (Dada) or sister (Didi). If they seem to be middle aged, then “Kaku” or (Uncle) seems to be appropriate for men, and “Mashi” (Aunt) for women. For women, a subtle transition from “Mashi” to “Mashi-ma” can occur but one needs to be quite careful with that judgement. Often it so happens, that if it is a couple we meet, we call the husband “Kaku” (paternal uncle) and the wife “Mashi” (maternal aunt) – an almost absurd (although not impossible) relationship. When we meet a couple, “Kaku/Kakima” or “Mashima/Meshomoshai” is a better bet. It is odd though that the relations, “Mama” (maternal uncle) or “Pishi” (paternal aunt) are not used very often for such acquaintances. If you are ever doubtful about your social status in this relationship scale, I suggest you walk down the pavement in Gariahat Kolkata. The hawkers and roadside vendors will give you a perfect judgment about your age. Many ladies have experienced their development from “Didi” to “Boudi” to “Mashi” to Mashi-ma” to “Thakuma” from these experts.
When I was younger, I too used these relational attributes to show my respect to my seniors. But as I am growing older, I have realized that it may no longer be appropriate to assume anybody as my “Kaku” or “Mashi”, maybe not even “Dada” or “Didi”. The realization becomes stronger when someone whom I know to be my contemporary, or even older than me, addresses me as “Dada”. Some people just cannot see themselves as older than anybody else and this often cause a lot of heartache for many. Few days ago a young lady at my place was visibly upset when a middle aged friend of mine called her “Aunty”!
Personally, I have tried to keep myself detached from such trivial issues claiming it really doesn’t matter to me how someone addresses me. But recently when some twenty something was struggling to decide whether to call me “Kaku”, “Jethu” or “Mesho-moshai”, I had strong feeling that it is high time we change this system.
I agree, we may not feel comfortable to address our seniors by their first names. We may also feel a bit awkward to listen to a young boy half my age, calling me by my first name. Although it is quite common in this country to use first names, but we still feel uncomfortable to use them within our community. Hindi speaking people have resolved this issue by adding a suffix “ji” to any name – Sudipta-ji, Sutapa-ji etc. It is almost like using Mr. or Mrs. to ones name to show your respect, although Mr. and Mrs. works with last names only. Not too long ago, Bengalis too used the suffix (sometimes even as a prefix) “Babu” with male names and “Debi” with female names, to show their respect. Sudipta-babu, or Mrinalini-debi was used amongst the urban elites. But somehow, over the years, “Babu” and “Debi” has lost their gravity and today many feel insulted if they are addressed as a Babu or Debi. So, what can be the solution?
The best solution would be to use our names – just as they are. Names are given to identify a person, to address a person. We all have names. So lets use them. Why do we have to make somebody my “Dada” when I am not sure if he is older than me? Why should I accept someone calling me “Mesho-moshai” when I know that I never had a “Shyalika” or sister-in-law? Let’s drop this pretense of being a nephew or a niece and call Subhashis as Subhashis, Ajit as Ajit, Shanti as Shanti.
But if this sounds too radical, I am willing to accept a compromise. Just like the suffix “-ji”, lets use “-da” for men and “-di” for women as a sign of respect, irrespective of their age. You may call Subhashis as Subhashis-da, Ajit as Ajit-da, Krishna as Krishna-di. Remember, this “-da” or “-di” is not the same as “Dada” or “Didi” and they imply no familial relationship. Besides we have been using these suffixes for quite some time and it maybe easier for us to adopt. It will resolve many complicated issues and awkward situations that Bengali naming conventions have put us into. No longer will young Sucharita feel guilty in calling her boy friend Subir as Subir-da. Now Subir can also call her Sucharita-di, until they cross the boundaries of Bengali social formalities.