Saturday, February 19, 2011

Deferential forms of addresses

Sometime ago, a friend of mine, a young woman whose stable intellectual diet is Hollywood movies and television chat shows, committed a faux pas.  She was walking out of an auditorium after watching a cultural programme when she saw in front of her Krishna Rao, a retired professor of English, whom she had met a couple of times earlier.  "How are you, Mr Krishna Rao?"  she greeted him in a chirpy voice.  The rising intonation fell flat on Krishna Rao's face: what greeted her back was an admonishing look from the professor.  "I only greeted him.  Why did he give me a dirty look?"  the young woman asked me.

Krishna Rao answered the question when I met him a few days later: "I am used to being addressed in a respectful way – as ‘mastraru’ or 'sir' or 'Krishna Rao garu'.  But the lady mistered me: she called me 'Mr Krishna Rao'!  I couldn't stand that familiarity."  I would have shocked him if I had told him that the young woman, who is ten years my junior, and I are on first-name terms.

But Krishna Rao is far from being an exception.  As likely as not, any other Indian of Krishna Rao's stature would have taken offence at being addressed as "Mr--".  We may have taken easily to western social mores, but the old Indian practice of addressing an elderly or a respected person formally in the third person is too deep-rooted to give in to western modes.

There is another aspect to it.  If you are treated with respect in a particular manner by a large number of people over a period of time, you grow to like it and expect to be treated that way, however excessively mannered and ludicrous it may be.  I am used to not only being addressed as "sir" but also being referred to as "sir” ("Sir said he would help us.") by people who are either younger than me or below me in the professional hierarchy.

A young friend carries this a bit too far: he addresses me as "your goodself"!  Here is a sample: "If your goodself comes here at 10 o'clock…"   I won't be surprised even if he says, "Your goodself says in your goodself's column today …"   This deferential form of the second person is in effect the third person and springs from the belief not only in Indian culture but several others that the singular form ("you"), when used with reference to a respected person, is over-familiar and therefore vulgar.  I am so used to this overcourteous form that I wonder whether I will take kindly to the use of the unadorned "you" with reference to me by the same person.

Deferential forms come in handy: they can tone down offence.  If the above-mentioned friend of mine, a master of the Oriental hyperbole, were to apologize to me, he would do so in style: "Your goodself is certainly right and I am wrong, as your goodself always is."  And I would look stupid.

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