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He Who Must Not Be Named
Issue #69 (Get your mind out of the gutter)
Men, have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be Lord Voldemort?
Women, have you ever imagined being married to ol’ Voldy?
What if I told you that pretty much every Indian woman is Mrs. Voldemort?
Take a gander at a small sampling of the many many stories of Indian women married to Men Who Must Not Be Named:
Gayatri’s Gujrati mother-in-law never says her father-in-law’s name. Instead, she begins every sentence addressed to him with a ‘shun kahun chhu..’ which translates into ‘so what I was saying is…’
Pratima’s Hindi-speaking aunt addresses her uncle as ‘main kya keh rahi thi…’ which also means the same.
Alok’s wife calls him ‘suniye ji’ (please listen), even though he asks her to address him by his name. In fact, she prefers to stick to the monicker even in private, to avoid a slip-up. She can imagine no worse fate than being overheard by her family addressing her husband by - gasp - his name.
Latika tried addressing her husband by his name after their wedding and was promptly informed by her in-laws that a husband’s lifespan reduces by an unspecified amount each time his wife utters his name.
Abhishek’s family does not believe in any such nonsense, of course. They are all highly educated NRIs, and English has been their first language for two generations now.
His mother always calls his father ‘listennnn…’
The Name Talk
Asha and Ankit began dating in college and ended up tying the knot after having been together for several years. At the time, Asha was working in a consumer goods company as a Sales Manager.
“When I shared the news of my upcoming wedding, all my colleagues - mostly men - congratulated me and asked in the same breath, ‘So now that you will be his wife, what are you going to address Ankit as?’ I was perplexed by the question. No one was posing such a question to Ankit, who incidentally worked in the same firm. But almost everyone I told about the wedding informed me that - now that we were to be a married couple - it was no longer ‘appropriate’ for me to call my partner by his name.”
Reality hit home when Asha’s mother sat her down to have The Name Talk.
“She began explaining to me why it is not polite for me, as an Indian wife, to continue to address Ankit by his name. I had to put my foot down. I told her that if marriage meant being stripped of such basic freedoms, then I would rather not get married at all.”
“My mother had no choice but to let it go at that point. But I know that she and many others in the family continued to remain upset for years about the simple fact that I addressed my husband by his name.”
He Who Has No Name
Jyoti told me the story about a bet she and her cousins had about the way their grandmother addressed - or rather did not address - their grandfather.
“One of us brought up this theory - that our grandmom simply does not ever address our grandfather! Not his name, not suniye ji, nothing at all!”
Jyoti could not believe she hadn’t noticed something as absurd as this. The cousins actually had a bet going to test this theory.
“So, the next time the family got together at our ancestral home, we all kept a keen eye on our grandmother’s interactions with our grandfather. And we were shocked to realize that it was true! No matter how banal or critical a message she had to convey, our grandmother just never calls out to him! Every time she needs to say something to him, she just walks all over the house, finds him, walks up to him, and starts talking without using any name or term to address him at all!”
“We all found it hilarious and laugh about it to this day. But if you think about it, this is reverence at a whole other level - where even a monicker like suniye ji is perhaps too insolent for a woman to use for her husband!”
Lucky to call him by his Aadhaar-card name
A few days after her wedding, Asmitha was having a cup of tea with a 70-year-old relative of her husband’s. He noticed a gold chain she was wearing on her wrist and mistook it for her Mangalsutram (a necklace married women are expected to wear in most Hindu families).
“He sternly told me that I should never take my Mangalsutram off.
Now, the piece of jewelry on my wrist was not a Mangalsutram at all. Actually, I am quite against the practice of wearing the Mangalsutram because I feel it is a form of branding only imposed on married women. Hindu men are expected to wear no such marker of their marital status.
But I didn’t think that this Uncle would appreciate my thoughts on gender equality. So I simply told him that the chain was my partner's. While referring to my partner, I used the nickname that the entire family uses to address him.”
It was probably a good thing Asmitha spared him the horror of her thoughts on the Mangalsutram, since even her utterance of her partner’s name proved too much for Uncle ji’s cultured sensibilities.
“He proceeded to lecture me about the correct (‘and loving!’) way of addressing my partner. We are a Telugu family, where the word a woman must use for her husband is Yevandi (Telugu version of Suniye ji).”
Asmitha realized at this point that she had two options - nod along and accept Uncle ji’s model code of conduct, or stand up to him.
“If I didn’t speak up now, I would have to call my partner by a name that I was not comfortable with every time this Uncle or someone like him visited us in our own home. I did not want to pretend - for the rest of my life, no less! So I chose the second option, fully knowing it might result in a diatribe about ‘you uncultured women of today’.
I told him that the times have changed now. In many Telugu families, women now address their partners by their names. He tried to sugarcoat his diktat by telling me that this is a form of ‘endearment’ that I should not miss out on. I pointed out to him that a term of endearment would go both ways and the husband would also be expected to call the wife by it.”
Faced with such un-sanskaari logic, Uncle ji dropped all pretense of endearments, and the knives were out.
“Uncle ji concluded the discussion by announcing that I should at least call my partner by his actual name and not his nickname ‘because it is not respectful’. And that was that.
I chose to let the matter go at this point to avoid hurting Uncle ji’s ego any more than I already had. So I did not point out the fact that my husband’s entire family addresses him by his nickname, including his 4-year-old niece!”
Asmitha says that she felt lucky after the conversation that she was at least not being pushed by her in-laws to use the term they preferred.
At the same time, she also pointed out how messed up it is that women are conditioned to feel fortunate to have such tiny freedoms in their personal lives.
“No man has ever even had to debate family members before being allowed to utter his wife’s name. And here I was, feeling ‘lucky’ even though I was not even able to convince a random relative that I should be able to address my partner however I feel fit!”
She ended by thanking me for writing on this subject because:
“These are the sort of things that people consider ‘little’. But such little things are the ones that shape our minds and the minds of the children who grow up in our homes.”
Sulochana belongs to a traditional Tamil family. When she turned 25, her family arranged her marriage to a ‘suitable boy’ from the same community.
“He and I used to attend the same college. I had always addressed him by his first name during those four years of college, so his family did not object to me continuing to do so. However, they insisted that I address him in plural form - avar / neenga i.e. "unhone/aap" instead of "usne/tum".”
Background: In many Indian languages, you might address individuals in plural terms to show respect. For example, ‘they’ is used instead of ‘he/she’ when referring to parents, elders, God - and yes - husbands.
Sulochana followed the protocol for the most part.
However, she says that it was a turbulent marriage from the very beginning.
“Soon after we got married, he started physically assaulting me. I would stand up for myself but it just kept happening again and again. One day, his mom overheard us having an argument about him raising his hand on me yet again. She stormed into our bedroom without knocking and immediately began scolding me for raising my voice.
I told her what had happened - “Avan enna adichan” / “Usne mujhe maara” / “He hit me”.
She said that she would slap me if I referred to him in singular ever again.”
The fact that his mother was more concerned about Sulochana addressing her son in the ‘proper’ terms than she was about her son being an abusive husband was a moment of truth.
“I was reminded of what a school teacher of mine used to say - ‘One should always command respect, and never stay in a situation where one has to demand it’. Since respecting a woman was clearly a concept beyond the grasp of the guy and his family, he is my ex today, and I have been happily divorced for four years now.”
Choosing the name you call your partner by is one of the first decisions you take in your married life.
In most countries, this decision point does not exist at all because what-else-will-I-call-him-by-but-his-name?
In India, though, we have an entire song and dance about it. In Maharashtrian weddings, there is an actual ceremony at the wedding - the ukhana - where the bride is given the opportunity to recite a couplet that cleverly hides her groom’s name in it.
This is, of course, the only way she can possibly utter those syllables without having the skies fall on the entire wedding venue.
Some families now try to make this ceremony more inclusive by having both - the bride and the groom - participate in it. But the ritual originally existed only for women to get an opportunity to taste their husband’s names on their tongues.
On special occasions. As a special treat.
If the foundation of a marriage is this lopsided, how can the relationship built on it ever be equal?
Maybe the future is not as Dark?
Remember Asha and Ankit?
They got married over twenty years ago. When I spoke with her, Asha recounted a more recent memory too.
Last month, Asha attended a family wedding as a guest from the groom’s side. During the wedding, her teenage niece approached her with a question.
“She came up to me, looking quite upset. She asked me, ‘I don’t understand this. Why are all the women from the bride’s side addressing their husbands with funny pronouns and monickers? Why don’t they just use their names? The husbands don’t seem to have any issue using the wives’ names!’ ”
Asha instinctively launched into a lecture, about how, in Hindu mythology, the husband is given the stature of God. So, just as we address God with reverence, husbands in many families are also addressed in the same terms.
“Even as I was giving her this response, I questioned myself. ‘Really, Asha? After having fought this battle yourself, are you really going to give such a reply to a young woman questioning this practice?’ But I was very happy to see that my niece was not at all satisfied with my explanation and kept asking more questions, and counter-questions about it.
Ultimately, I told her that she was right - it was an antiquated practice that must end. She ended up having a long conversation with me about all the other parts of the wedding - the kanyadaan (bride’s father gives her away to the groom) and the wedding vows - that she thought denied the agency of the woman.
I take so much heart in seeing that the future is in the hands of such children - especially young girls - who question, rather than mutely accept these unequal practices. I only hope that grown ups like me choose to fan this fire in the women of tomorrow, instead of trying to extinguish it.”
And if nothing else works, the revolution could just be a bunch of women saying their husbands’ names over and over to chip away at their lifespans.
Rest in pieces, Mukesh.
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