This Indian Life:
You are being watched: Welcome to the scathing world of the ever criticising Indian unties
You know what unites India? Older aunties who make intensely rude comments about a person’s appearance
It was while stuffing my face at Bukhara in Delhi that the thought occurred to me: what unites India? A love of spicy food and maa ki dal for sure. Cricket and Bollywood perhaps. What else?
Then the aunties walked in. There must have been about 20 of them. Clearly this was a ritual, a kitty party perhaps, because they all sat down around a long table with the ease and familiarity of people who had known each other a long time. With their short grey hair and neat salwar-kameezes, they looked cool and elegant. So dignified, I thought, until the comments started flying.
“Look at her dress. So short. And such fat legs.”
“Reminds me of Rachna’s daughter-in-law. You know that one who looks cross-eyed.”
“But this one’s face is broader. And flat. Like someone has slapped her hard from front.”
“Her eyes are like an owl’s. So bulging.”
I thought it was only my family ladies who did this but these Sindhi-Punjabi-Delhi women were no different.
You know what unites India? It is all these older aunties who make intensely personal comments about a person’s appearance. Nobody is spared. But generally, it is women who get the brunt of these comments.
Family weddings are the worst because young women who are already self-conscious are targets – like sitting ducks. They are wearing costumes that are a far cry from their school uniforms. They walk in awkwardly and these old ladies who have nothing better to do gleefully pass remarks. It is like taking knife to butter.
“Your hair used to be so nice, beta. What happened? Have an oil bath once a week.”
“And use sandalwood paste for your pimples. Such nice skin your sister has.”
“With this much weight, at least you won’t have to worry about boys chasing you. Hahaha. Just a joke.”
The cruelty is so casual. The comments rush out like a tsunami, flattening young and fragile egos.
I used to make excuses for this behaviour. I used to try to forgive my aunts for their insensitive comments. They are old. They don’t know what they are saying. It is Indian culture. We don’t have boundaries or privacy. These oldies are being straightforward and transparent. In America or Europe, they will pass comments behind your back but will gush to your face. I used to try many things to explain away this behaviour. But now I am tired of it. Why can’t all these old crones just shut up? Why must young women be subject to detailed, specific and bitchy comments about their hair, skin and nails? All this masked as affection. As if saying “bachcha,” or “kanna,” or “puttar,” makes these vicious comments suddenly seem okay.
The worst part is that no retaliation is possible. After all, we have this hypocritical concept called “respect for elders” in India
The worst part is that no retaliation is possible. After all, we have this hypocritical concept called “respect for elders” in India. This means that you have to take whatever rudeness is doled out to you by some corpulent aunt who you want to slap. But you have to smile sweetly and touch her feet. You cannot call her half of the names that she is calling you.
Why do Indian women do this? And, yes, it is unfortunately more women than men. Why do they get so stuck on appearance, whether it is a continuous running commentary on how the heroines of television serials look, or stupid remarks to that unsuspecting young girl who knocks on the door.
All of us who have been subjected to this develop a thick skin and some self-defence techniques. One friend of mine walks in and profusely praises all the aunties. It distracts them, she says, and prevents them from speaking about her appearance. Another friend in Chennai has mastered the art of giving as good as she gets, all under a veneer of respectfulness.
“You have put on weight, kanna.”
“And you need glasses, aunty.”
It still hurts, she says. These comments sting because they hit close to home, because they say things that we already know but don’t want to confront.
At Bukhara, I tried to do something I have never done before. I walked up to the aunties’ table. My plan was to educate them about how unfair and unnecessary it was to make these personal remarks about young women. I wanted to remind them that they had been young once. Didn’t they remember how hurtful it was to be called “buck-teethed,” or “fat” or whatever? Why not focus on a person’s accomplishments or character instead of appearance, I would tell them. And why do this to girls more than boys? Didn’t they realise that women in India were being objectified already? They were just adding fuel to the fire.
As I walked up, one lady piped up and said. “Look, Black Rahul and White Rahul have just walked in (kala/gora).”
Where do I even begin?
Aunties, if you are reading this, just stop with the personal remarks.
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This Indian Life appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, April 14, 2019
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