The email comes from an address I don’t recognize, a query from a would-be contributor. “Dear Sir,” the note begins. I narrow my eyes at the screen, unaccustomed to being addressed so formally and certainly not with a masculine appellation. But it makes sense, I reason. The writer is probably thinking of our former editor, Ashok Jethanandani. I respond naturally, adding a short postscript about the transitions we’ve gone through this year in the editorial department.

I add these explanatory postscripts to most emails during my first few weeks atIndia Currents. Still, the headings persist well into my fifth month on the job: “Dear Sir.” “Dear Editor, Sir.” And in some cases, it’s clear that the sender of the email in question is not familiar with our magazine, never mind my male predecessor.

I begin to receive messages that start with the even more assured “Dear Mr. Srinivasan.” My full name is listed in both our print and online magazines, so anyone who knows to address an email to “Mr. Srinivasan” would have encountered my first name as well. Is it just unfamiliarity? In fairness to our diverse population of readers, I’m prepared to accept that “Ragini” might sound to some like a man’s name. But “Mr. Srinivasan” continues to receive mail, even from readers and contributors with patently Indian and South Asian names.

These are small oversights, one might say. Nothing worse than incorrect pronoun usage. But it’s one thing to have difficulty with gender assignment in a foreign language, another thing entirely to incorrectly assign gender to someone you don’t know. “He” and “his” are not neutral signifiers. And it is rather irksome to be addressed wrongly in the masculine, as I imagine it would be for a male to be addressed in the feminine.

Irksome, a little funny, but also more complicated than one might initially think. I recently exchanged emails with a photographer regarding his fee for the image of one of our desi headliners. I signed all of my emails, “Ragini.” He addressed each of his to “Mr. Ragini Srinivasan.” After the first naming error, I thought I should point out that it is actually “Ms. Srinivasan.” The tenor of our exchange, however, made me hesitant. What if the photographer was more comfortable in what he perceived to be a business interaction between males? Would he negotiate more openly and generously with a “Mr.” than a “Ms.”?

Maybe, maybe not. But my suspicion and willingness to be complicit were driven by the recurrent presumption of my specifically male editorial authority.

Did anyone ever address an email to Ashok, “Dear Ms. Jethanandani” or “Dear Editor, Madam”?

Why the assumption that an editor—whether with a known, unknown, or entirely unintelligible name—simply by virtue of being in a position of some responsibility, must be male?

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.

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