A week ago, when I was in India, I met up with an old cousin. She asked me nonchalantly what I call my husband. “By his name”, I said matter-of-factly. All she had was a piece of advice, “Don’t call him by his name!”
For those who are wondering, what the big fuss is about, let me give you a brief history. Women in India, previously, couldn’t address their husbands by name. In fact, women, to this day, cannot use the first person singular while referring to their husband. It is considered disrespectful. What’s more — this age-old practice is still relevant, not just in villages, but also in the cities.
Back in those days, when I was a new bride, my mother-in-law had a similar advice. Befuddled, I had asked her, what or how else could I call my husband. Now, if you are a non-Indian, I would highly recommend you to brace yourself because, I am yet to get my head around this strange custom. My mother-in-law, told me in simple words — “call him ‘what’”. If you are dizzy, please sit down, because there is more.
My mother-in-law calls my father-in-law by a phrase in an Indian language that roughly translates into — ‘what you’ in English. My mum calls my dad ‘What’. For many generations, women have never uttered their husband’s names! So, naturally, I was bogged down by tradition when I heard my mother-in-law.
As a new bride, my first instinct was to please her. I imagined myself in a bazaar trying to grab my husband’s attention, calling out, “What! What!” When I pictured that, I found the entire crowd looking in my direction. That felt insanely ridiculous. So, I came up with a clever idea. I decided to present myself in front of my husband to talk to him and thus avoid the entire business of ‘names’. But, I soon realised, it was not my thing. My feministic streak got the better of me. I began to call out to my husband by his name.
But the reactions were not friendly. “How could you?” some asked. “And first person singular?” some others were clearly scandalised. But the collective consensus was that I didn’t value my husband, because, by calling him by his name, I was shortening his lifespan! Now, if you are wondering what “lifespan” has to do with “names and husbands”, then, I would like to welcome you to a world where logic is alien. A long-held belief is that using names shortens the husband’s lifespan. This is the reason why most women till date don’t call their husbands by their names. Instead, women resort to other words, like ‘what’, ‘what if’ and so on while men call their wives not just by their names but “other names” as well.
This belief, I have to confess, had me thinking for a long time. All my rationale argued that if uttering my husband’s name would shorten his lifespan, then, wouldn’t half of India’s harassed women do just that? Chant her man’s name a 1,000 times a day and voila, cold-blooded murder! Simple and efficient.
Since women cannot call their husbands by their names, they resort to what the children call. Meaning, they address the husband by exactly the same word that the children use to address their father. Trust me, it is even more creepy when you hear the word — ‘Daddy’. I know, they are referring to their husbands. But, I would love to remind them that their husbands have a name of their own! And, even if they still cannot bring themselves to say the name, can’t they try something else? Something new? At least romanticise it — like perhaps ‘Bond. James Bond’? Just maybe?
Sudha Subramanian is an author and freelance writer based in Dubai.