Sometimes BB stands at the gate and calls out to passers-by on the street. He neatly classifies them into  Onties, Unkuns, Didis, Bhaiyas, Dadas and Dadis based on their age. Even the old beggar lady at the traffic junction is addressed very respectfully as Dadi.The characters from his rhymes picture books are also addressed in a similar fashion; so we have Jack Bhaiya and Jill Didi, Muppet Didi( Little Miss Muffet) and the Black sheep who goes Baa Baa has a one bag of wool each for the Unkun, Onty and the Bhaiya.And even the little plastic figures fixed to the driver’s seat in his cars/jeeps/tractors are addressed as driver uncles.

When I think back, I remember consciously  addressing all the older kids that he meets as Didi and Bhaiya ( I started doing that because one kid who is about 10 months older than BB insisted that BB calls him ‘Anna'( elder brother in Kannada)!). But I don’t remember consciously addressing all the adults he meets as uncles/aunties.But it looks like we were  unconsciously pointing out the adults as aunties and uncles.Thats when I started wondering about the Indian obsession with uncles and aunties. I mean where else in the world would one address a random stranger on the road who will continue to be a stranger after the very brief conversation ( be it asking for directions, asking for the time or something just as humdrum) as an aunt or an uncle?

And this takes me back to my childhood days when the aunty and uncle business started. Indian kids growing up in the metros and the small towns grow up addressing their whole neighbourhood as aunties and uncles  for years together sometimes without a clue to the addressed person’s real names. And to differentiate between the unnamed aunties/uncles, we would sometimes prefix aunty/uncle with anything unique to them. Their uniqueness could be their profession, the state they originated from or some feature/characteristic that stood out. So in our neighbourhood we had a Nurse Aunty, a Kashmiri Uncle ( and obviously his wife was the Kashmiri Aunty), an All India Radio Aunty( the loud gossip monger),the cup and saucer house uncle and aunty ( you wont believe this, but their house had a cup and saucer shaped tank that was visible from far off and so the name just stuck) ,the backhouse uncle and aunty ( yes this couple were our back door neighbours and to this day we call this lady backhouse aunty to her face!) and the most unusual one of them all the char sau bhis aunty.( this was the lady who stayed 2 houses away from my friend’s house who stayed in house # 422 ;)). Over the years, we did learn the names of most of these uncles and aunts, but their unique names just stayed on long past our childhood days and when we visit my parents now, my son addresses the back door neighbour as backhouse ajji( granny).Another category of aunties and uncles were the parents of our friends. We didn’t really need to know our friends parents names.They were addressed as aunty/uncle and when talking about them in the third person,they were just referred to as U’s mom or R’ s dad. To this day, I don’t know the names of  the parents of some of my closest friends.

We Indians  take our uncle and aunty business quite seriously( atleast the neighbourhood ones and not the random stranger ones). For couples like my parents who left behind their kith and kin in Kerala to take up jobs in far off Bangalore, these neighbour kith and kin were the closest to the real ones left behind. The relatives from Kerala and the real uncles and aunts  settled in other parts of India could not always make it for all the functions/celebrations held in Bangalore, but  I cannot  remember a birthday party, naming ceremony,engagement or wedding which were not graced by the neighbour aunties, uncles and their kids.

I also learnt to appreciate the warmth behind the uncle/aunty business some years back. My friend U who lives in the US was visiting her mom in Bangalore and her American colleague and her boyfriend who were also visiting India decided to spend a couple of days at U’s mom’s place. This American couple were about 5-6  years older than us and I was shocked when I heard them address U’s mom by her first name. I was tempted to correct them every time they called her by her name and ask them to please call her aunty as that’s the way the elderly are addressed in our country, but then realized that its such an Indian thing that would not be fully appreciated by the Americans.

So the next time BB calls out to the random strangers on the road and addresses them as ‘Unkun’ or ‘Onty’, I will glad that some things have not changed since the time we were kids.

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