A few days back we attended a dinner party; the birthday celebration of a very dear friend. Although she loves to go out and meet other people, I normally don’t like to take Rumi along, simply because organizing her meals, carrying all of her diapers and clothes and disrupting her sleep schedule means more work for me such that I can’t really relax and enjoy myself. However, this time we agreed to take her along because we did not want to drop her off to the grandparents’ and repeat last week’s fiasco where she refused to come home, and also because the husband pulled his best sad face and said “I would have taken Rums along and given you a break, but I just love it when you come with me.” Thus, we dressed up and set out on the long drive in search of the house where the party was to happen.
Rumi was very quiet throughout the car journey. Our usual route to my Mum’s place takes us on one of the busiest, brightest, most bustling roads of Pune. There are horns and swear words to be heard and lots of people to roll down the window and wave to. This route was tree lined and dark and very quiet. Our little social butterfly did not like it one bit. For the first time ever I heard her say “Anurag madhe jaycha ahe” (‘I want to go back to Anurag’: the society where we live, which she normally claims to hate!). I comforted her and told her how fun it was going to be once we reached and explained to her that we would leave immediately if she didn’t enjoy herself. And so we went into this beautiful house that almost looked like a movie set. The party was on the terrace with gaadis (mattresses) laid out and a canopy of fairy lights over our heads. The food was all vegetarian but so yummy; Bruschettas and Pav Bhaji and Ras Malai and this new scrumptious corn concoction called ‘Butte ka Kees’. We were drinking and having a good time and although Rumi wasn’t having the best time, she was quiet and didn’t make a fuss. The only way I knew she wasn’t really thrilled to be there was that she kept coming to me and nuzzling me and burying her head in my shoulders every few minutes. It was one of those days where my heart swelled with love for her and pride at how well she was behaving.
Later in the night, after the cake was cut and we were lounging in the sit-out complete with beautiful plants and a big jhoola, the host casually remarked, “Tum tumhari beti ko culturally bighad rahe ho” (You are spoiling your child ‘culturally’). My jaw almost dropped to the floor and I looked at Abhi in shock. I had been under the impression that Rumi had behaved unusually well that evening. I racked my brain to think of what we had done wrong, before my common sense intervened and anger at this ‘horrid’ remark welled up in my heart. The host continued “Dekho ye kaise subko naam se pukaarti hai, chacha ya kaka bolna chahiye na” (She addresses everybody by their first names, shouldn’t she be using the terms ‘uncle’ or ‘kaka’? ). In India, it is customary to use ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunty’ or at least ‘Bhaiya’ / ‘Didi’ while addressing those who are older to us, as a mark of respect. However, Rumi very often imitates us while speaking and thus tends to use first names with our friends. While addressing any of my friends in front of Rumi I don’t call them ‘Kaku’ or ‘Maushi’, I just use their first names because it feels comfortable and right to me. (Call it one of my personal oddities but I shudder at the thought of addressing my friends as ‘Ae Saee Maushi’ or ‘Aga Gauri Kaku’ in front of Rumi. Just as I hate using ‘we’ for anything that Rumi does; WE are not in a good mood today, WE are now identifying colors and so on). I have never perceived this as a problem, I figured that nobody around really minds what a child actually calls them and Rumi will eventually grow up and figure these social hierarchies out on her own. It is enough for me that she talks with great consideration and politeness to all those she meets and says ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’ on her own.
So I was quite taken aback to hear that this was perceived as a problem in the way we are bringing her up. The host continued to admonish me about it and I did what I do best in situations where I’m nettled and provoked and embarrassed. I plastered a wide smile on my face and nodded and pretended to agree but I had immediately tuned him out in my mind. That is my coping mechanism because I refuse to be confrontational; I nod and agree but stubbornly continue to do my own thing. Abhi, however, intervened and an argument began. It had all the makings of a social argument: both parties spoke with smiles in clipped, over-polite tones but there was an icy, awkward undertone to it. I was really mortified because well, we were at their house after all and I didn’t want to be disrespectful but I knew that Abhi was really making an effort to stand up for what we believe in, against his own non-confrontational nature. I silently thanked him for it and cheered every time he made a ‘good’ point. The argument went on for a while and we left soon thereafter.
We discussed this at length on the long car ride home. What does respect mean to us? Did we perceive Rumi’s behavior as disrespectful during the course of the evening? Does the use of the first name indicate that we are ashamed of our own culture and want to ‘copy’ the West? Do we see this as something that would be a problem for Rumi growing up? The answer to all these questions is an outright, unequivocal NO. I reminded him that this is not the first time this issue has come up. At the in-laws, my MIL gently admonishes Rumi with “Asa nahi mhanaycha” (Don’t say that) every time Rumi addresses one of us as ‘Abhi’ or ‘Alisha’ or ‘Smita’ or ‘Sushant’ although we laugh and find it extremely endearing.
And though I do not want Rumi chided and ‘corrected’ unnecessarily, I can also imagine how hard it is for Aai and many other people to see this as anything but disrespect. Abhi has a good solution. “It is between Rumi and the person she meets. Let her ask people what she should call them. Let them decide.” I agree and so, we encourage Rumi to pose the question “What should I call you” to every new person she meets. Works like a charm. She’s happy, we’re happy and the ‘Kakas’ and ‘Chachas’ of the world are hopefully at peace too.