This post owes its creation to the following Google chat between yours truly (YT) and a charming young lady who shall be called Princess. Believe me, she is Princess and more to my friend whose daughter she is. I was chatting with my friend in the West, when Princess took over the computer and came on line to chat with me. I wish that I had had more time with her on the chat box to explain, but in the alternative, I dedicate this post to her.
YT: Wow! Princess nice to chat with you in person
Princess: and with you Grand Sir! We just arrived, it wasn’t a great journey up, lots of traffic
YT: Now, you are pulling my beard – grand sir!
Princess: Just following Ashok’s example!
YT: You are incredible. Ashok follows the Indian system of calling all elders sir or madam. He can never get enough courage to call me anything but.
Princess: I thought that was it – you live in a very polite society that respects it’s elders, we need more of that here these days.
Ashok as most of my readers know is the baby of the Friday consortium bloggers. He is perfectly comfortable calling all the others by their given names, but with me, he follows the Indian system.
The Indian system has many variations. But one constant is that elders are never called by their first or surnames, ever. Close friends with some age difference between them do, but other than that, it is just not done. Even “you” has three different grades, depending on the level of intimacy with the addressee. In Hindi they are, ‘tu’, ‘thum’ and ‘aap’. The last is the most commonly used, being the most formal and respectful.
Within the family, each relationship has a particular name, such as a maternal uncle is a Maamaa and a paternal uncle is Kaakaa, Chaachaa, or Periyappa etc. For elders outside the family, either ‘Saheb’, or ‘ji’ is attached to the name as a suffix, so, I am often called Ramanaji or Rajgopaulji. There are nuances in such suffixes too as they can be attached to the first name or the surname, depending on the degree of formality involved.
This is however a tradition in the Northern parts of India whereas, in the Southern parts, it has now become a tradition to suffix “Sir” or “Madam” to a name. This goes back to the tradition established in schools where the teachers are called either Sir or Madam. To differentiate between various teachers, the Sir or Madam is attached to the teacher’s name. The Southern parts of the country had more of the English influence in the education system as opposed to the North where local languages did. Both parts however had to learn English in all schools. In some, the medium of instruction itself was and continues to be in English.
In Maharashtra, a fusion has taken place and it is common to be addressed as Sirji.
I have two nephews who are half Scottish. When they were wee lads, their father insisted that they call me by the way Indian children call their elder paternal uncle, which is Periappa. Apart from being a tongue twister for the little fellows, they found it strange that their class and playmates who met me could call me by my first name, whereas they could not. They are all grown up now and practicing lawyers, but both still find it uncomfortable calling me and others in the family with the Indian way of addressing elder relatives.
Thank God that Ashok does not call me Sir Ramana!
I would just add a piece of observation that I made in the same chat, for the benefit of my readers, lest they get carried away with the thought that we are a great polite society. We are first and foremost, human.
YT: Over here, politeness often covers devious intent.