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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

When you meet an adult woman, who is perhaps your mother’s age, what do you call her? Mrs.? Ms.? If she is between 10 and 20 years older than you, do you address her by her first name or last name? Or, do you pause to ask how she would like to be addressed?

If you’re an Indian American, you’ll probably just call her “aunty.” “Aunty” and “Uncle” have become easy fallbacks when addressing people including distant associates, neighbors, acquaintances, and even total strangers who are older than oneself. I’ve watched the attractive shopkeeper in our neighborhood Indian store cringe and straighten her kurti when a jean-clad matron has the gall to address her as “aunty.” And I identify with her indignant irritation completely. As an adult woman who has also been called “aunty” one too many times by too many adults who I barely know, I have a bone to pick with what I believe has become a hapless naming practice.

According to Probal Dasgupta’s study The Otherness of English: India’s Auntie Tongue Syndrome, the term aunty “functions these days as a marker of Western sophistication among the upwardly mobile middle classes in urban and semi-urban India.” Many of the Indians who reside in the Bay Area are products of this urban, elite heritage, and they seem determined to use “aunty” liberally and pass on the custom to their unsuspecting offspring.

Today, the title “aunty” is so overused and misused that it has lost its position and meaning. Indian-American children are taught that every adult female is a potential aunty; many carry this presumption to the conclusion that any adult female older than them can be an aunty. I’m not referring to school children here, but to those I see as adults, the lipsticked and bearded variety, who ought to know better. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with terms like ammayi, or cheriamma, or edathi, all specific Malayalam words that acknowledge individuals who are close family members and deserve rightful respect in the family’s pecking order. There are equivalent terms in every Indian language: terms like maami, mausi, and didi that all validate close family connections. But amongst English-speaking Indian Americans, the frequent use of “aunty” or “uncle” is more often an example of lazy speech, or a desire to bump the individual in question into the category of dodderingolder-other, than it is a thoughtful moniker of respect. Therein lies the problem.

I attended an art exhibition in the home of an Indian-American couple a few months back. The woman who answered the door to show me and my companion around said she was the homeowner. She was of an indeterminable age, but definitely an adult—and I don’t mean only in a legal sense! The gathering was of mixed age, ethnicity, and gender. Wine flowed and hors d’oeuvres were nibbled. It was a cosmopolitan scene. We were all adults in a neutral setting, and yet when it was time to leave, the hostess said to me, “Thanks for coming, aunty!” I bristled. How dare this woman call me aunty? Was this the result of her vanity? Was my anger an indication of mine? Her use of the term “aunty” with a perfect stranger was both deliberate and careless. This was not about respect. There was no regard for long-term association or affection. This was clearly an example of “you’re from an older, other world, and I’m still young, and I want to put some distance between us.”

Here are some guidelines for the use of the term “aunty” and to prevent against the kind of encounter I’ve just described.

If I have not known you when you were a child, and been a part of your life as you learnt and grew—I am not your aunty.

If you are an adult with or without furrows on your temples, and our paths have never crossed before—I am not your aunty.

If your children are younger than mine, or you are the same age as my grown children, but I am meeting you for the first time—I am not your aunty.

And if you’re just not sure what to call someone? Ask; don’t assume.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’ve seen what happens when friends’ parents visit from India, all articulate, successful, professional individuals in their own right, most still working adults, some retired perhaps, who nevertheless are made to feel like tag-alongs in the United States. Many of these parents insist that they prefer to be “left at home” when asked to accompany their offspring to local dinner functions and are pushed to the “aunty/uncle” section of the room. What happened to Indian grace, hospitality, and our cultural reverence for the wisdom and experience of age?

In the India of my childhood, aunties were privileged and exceptional members of the family. If they were not the sisters of your father or mother, or the wives of your uncles, they were close family friends who had known you since infancy and had a stake or significant interest in your well being. In a culture in which godmothers were unfamiliar, the aunty, like the “aunt” elephant in a matriarchal herd of elephants, took on that distinctive, responsible role and helped our mother defend and protect her calf.

Children have always needed aunties: women who were caring and courageous enough to share in the act of mothering. And aunties have always been part of every child’s “village,” whether in India or the United States. In fact a bestselling tribute to the institution of aunty-dom, The Complete Book of Aunts by Rupert Christiansen, was published in the U.K. in 2006 and states that of all our blood relations, an aunt offers the most potential for an uncomplicated friendship. As the author writes, there’s no reason to “let the aunt slide unremembered into the dust box of history.” Acknowledging significant family members is important, and I agree that we should celebrate those figures who mean something to us. But “mean something” is the operative phrase.

Think of all the older desi ladies you call “aunty.” Do you reserve use of the term for those with whom you have a significant relationship?

Let us not diminish the value of extended family, or reduce the importance of commitment and involvement, by loose interpretations and titles drawn by vanity. It’s time to redefine words like “aunty” and “uncle” in our vocabularies and restore their use to a rightful position. It’s time to honor those friends and family who truly have a hand in shaping our lives.

This article was published in the February 2009 issue of the magazine.

Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan is Director of Development at SVILC, Santa Clara County’s Independent Living Center, a full time mother, and a voice-over artist in her spare time.