I’m beginning to fear I may have lost my name. These days when I walk into an office only a few people shout out ‘Hello Karan’. Instead, what the majority says is ‘Good morning Sir’ or, if they’re being friendly and informal, ‘Hi Sir’. What’s even worse is the look
of polite deference on their faces. It clearly establishes that ‘Hi Sir’ is not ‘Hi Yaar’.
The problem is I don’t think of myself as ‘Sir’. In my mind I remain ‘Karan’. But that’s not all. I also still think of myself as youthful, cheeky, unpredictable and a little irrepressible. However, the term ‘Sir’ appears to contradict all of that. It sounds more like a response to my all-too-visible white hair rather than my self-assumed effervescence. It ages me and, worse, sets me apart. ‘Sir’ is never one of us. ‘Sir’ is inevitably and irresistibly one of them. ‘Sir’ is an alien.
However compared to what happens outside the office to be called ‘Sir’ is only mildly off-putting. Far more galling is the term of address strangers use. When I stop the car and ask for directions, or walk into a shop, or even pause to buy a paan, they call me ‘Uncle’. Now it’s one thing when little toddlers use the word and quite another when it trips of the tongue of a strapping lad of 25 who looms over you. Of course he means to be polite. Of that I have no doubt. But it leaves me feeling aged and sometimes a little decrepit.
Alas, my misery is not about to end. Indeed the saddest part is the realisation that things can only get worse. Soon — far too soon, in fact — the day will come when the awesome suffix ‘ji’ will be added to the already far too deferential ‘Sir’ and ‘Uncle’. I dread the moment I become ‘Sirji’ or ‘Uncleji’.
I recall the first time it happened to my sister Premila. She had been shopping in Hauz Khas and returned a little shaken. At the time she was probably no more than 50. That, by the way, is my age today.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. I was just about 25.
“They’ve started calling me Mataji!”
“So?” I questioned, unable or unwilling to understand what she meant. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Everything. For a start, I don’t look like a ‘Mataji’ and, secondly, I never want to look like one. So when strangers call me ‘Mataji’ I wonder what’s gone wrong!”
I think I smiled. Or may be I stayed straight faced. But what I do recall is that I dismissed her complaint with an airy and rather unsympathetic wave of my hand. I simply couldn’t imagine that one day I might face a similar predicament. Today time has caught up with me — and how!
The other day my nephew Udayan dropped by with his son Arzaan. Normally he’s an ebullient and outgoing child. He’s five and full of fun. But on seeing me Arzaan instantly transformed into a shy and tongue-tied lamb. The more I called out to him, the tighter he seemed to cling to his father.
“Come on Arzaan,” Udayan broke in, trying hard to help me. “Go to Nanoo.”
“Nanoo!” I spluttered.
“Yes, Karan Mamu. That’s what you are. You’re his Nanoo.”
I’m not sure if my face fell but I do know that my desire to dangle the child on my knee disappeared almost immediately. Arzaan, oblivious of the angst he had caused his great uncle, continued to cling to his father.
It’s only in India that deference and politeness are taken so far they end up feeling like victimisation.
In London, if you aren’t up to calling your boss by his or her first name you might end up saying ‘Mr This’ or ‘Mrs That’. But no one would say ‘Sir’. And certainly not ‘Madam’. Such terms of address stop with school.
Now I concede Americans call everyone ‘Sir’ but there’s neither deference nor any hint of age associated with the way they do. Their tone takes care of that. If not, their accent certainly does!
In India, however, you just can’t win. A week ago I made a determined effort to put a stop to being called ‘Sir’.
“Listen,” I said to someone who had been dropping the word like confetti. “Won’t you call me Karan instead?”
“Of course, Karan Sir,” came the reply. Then, after a pause, he added “Or would you prefer Thapar Sir instead?”