Monday 21 December 2009

Various uses of the word madam

In rural India a woman used to not use a name. She would be known firstly as so and so's daughter, then so and so's sister, then so and so's wife, then so and so's mother. These establish the acceptable relationships for a woman. The concept of male friends is not known, too much of a risk of bad naming the girl and spoiling marriage prospects. This has consequences for me:

First, my family has expanded to two brothers and a sister - you know who you are - to pave the way for hoped for visits next year, so you'd better start getting into role!

Secondly, my landlady's teenage daughter and Mr P's daughter are calling me Auntie. Mrs P told me today that when I wasn't in the office on Friday her daughter was asking where Auntie was. As they live above the office the kid is always around with the house maid - sounds grand but most people have some sort of house maid to help clean, prepare food etc. Its quite nice to get a "goodnight Auntie" from my landlady's daughter as I come in from work.

The third aspect of this, to me quaint, politeness is that in the office everyone calls me madame! This takes some getting used to, although I do find myself already answering to it. For me the word madam has distinct conoctations - be it the owner of a house of ill repute, or some the false politeness of some waiter in a trying to be grandiose restaurant.  It isn't like that here at all; it is very respectful. Just as French has its familiar "tu" form of you and its polite "vous" form so do Hindi and Oriya. In fact there are 3 forms in Hindi, namely and the intimate "tu, the familiar "tum" and the respectful "aap". In Oriya there are informal and respectful forms for both the singular "tame" and "apana" and plural "tamemane" and "apanamane" forms of you . Put these two aspects together  - the societal relationships and the language structure - and you understand why I am, for now, a madam!


  1. Enjoy being a madame while you can! I see to be Aunty to most people I speak to here and was told on my first day that my boss and his wife thought of me as their mother. I wasn't sure that I liked that idea but it seems to be the Indian way of showing respect.

  2. Oh how interesting! I'm sure they do not know the connotation of 'madame' in the english language.

    My kids went thru a stage where they referred to me as 'madam.' I told them to knock it off :)

  3. Really lovely. Both Auntie and Madame are sweet. I see you as a kind of Auntie Mame!