Friday, May 17, 2013

Chettah chechi...

Right from when we were kids, we are taught to call elders respectfully as chettah, chechi, uncle or aunty. The last two words are familiar for everyone. For the first two words, if you do not already know, these Malayalam words are used to address anyone with reverence and are slightly older than you. Chettah is for male while chechi is for female. Call it the hazards of our upbringing, this comes out naturally for us. Hence we quickly judge who belongs to which category chettah v/s uncle or chechi v/s aunty and address them accordingly. This is the case anywhere in India although the words might change depending on the areas. The underlying principles remain the same.

Now that I have set the stage, here is my question. Do you remember when you walked over to the other side in the sense you graduated from chettah to uncle or chechi to aunty? If you do, what was your initial reaction? Like I mentioned earlier, it is easy for us to map anyone to one of the four categories. But what happens when the roles are reversed? What happens when you are addressed as one of the four categories? To elaborate, everyone calls us by our name when we are growing up. This makes sense as we are in the bottom of the pyramid. As time flies, we slowly climb up towards the top of the pyramid. While we climb up, there are additions to the bottom of the pyramid. Very soon we reach a certain level in the pyramid where  people below us are forced to map us to one of the four categories. What was your first reaction when you were addressed as one of the four categories?

Being addressed as chettah or chechi doesn't evoke a strong reaction. It is because the age difference between the two people involved sounds ambiguously small. But being addressed as uncle or aunty is different. Here, the caller has put you in a different category with the age difference ambiguously big. Ambiguously small works is welcome whereas ambiguously big is not. Last week, I was teaching a friend's son how to address everyone in our group. I used an equivalent term for uncle in Malayalam to address my young friend. The young friend is young compared to me but he is old when compared to my friend's son. As soon as my young friend heard the term uncle, he recoiled in shock. He then requested to be called chettah. I smiled on hearing this. I will tell you the reason for the smile later. Of course, I persisted with my friend's son and my young friend was called uncle throughout our trip.

Talking about these four categories, I know someone, who is older than me, requesting my daughter to address her as chechi. Even though it sounded ridiculous, the requester looks very young and she deserves to be addressed that way for keeping good care of her. Moreover, the requester also belongs to our list of favorite people. At the same time, I also know someone who wanted to be addressed as aunty because of the hierarchy and at a later stage reverted back to chechi. That brings out another interesting point. When we are younger, we want to be placed at a more mature role and when we are older, it is the reverse.

Before I sign off, I will tell you the reason for the smile. Around 20 years back during my college vacation, a kid approached at the bus stop. He had some questions. So he began, "Uncle, can you help me?". I was taken aback as this was the first time somebody addressed me as uncle. I politely helped him and at the end, told him less politely not to call me uncle. So when my friend reacted the way he did, it was like holding a mirror in front of my face. But this mirror was showing me what happened 20 years back instead of the present.

Tags: Musings,Chettah,Chechi,Hierachy



  1. Interesting post, Nona. I tried but I can't remember when I was first called Aunty or for that matter "Tai", the Marathi equivalent of Chechi. I have reached an age where it just doesn't matter. ;-) Though I do draw the line at elderly shopkeepres and vegetable sellers calling me Aunty !

    1. :) As for the shopkeepers, I don't know why they do that. Do they really want to irritate us? If they do, they are successful at times. ;)


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 India License.