The saga of honorifics in India

The saga of honorifics in India
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Highlights

C S Sastry was my Collector in Krishna district where I was posted there as Assistant Collector (under training), after my training at Mussoorie.

C S Sastry was my Collector in Krishna district where I was posted there as Assistant Collector (under training), after my training at Mussoorie. One day, while we were chatting about this and that, I asked him how he enjoyed his earlier stint as Private Secretary to S K Dey, Union Minister for Cooperation and Panchayati Raj Development. Dey was a distinguished political leader known for his contribution to the growth and development of local self-government and rural development in the country.

Sastry's reply was, "these people like to have somebody whom they can call, saying 'arrey bhai zara suno'. Sastry was probably speaking in a light-hearted tone, because that may not have been really true, especially in those days when senior politicians had a lot of respect for officers. But it is difficult to take away from the fact that Ministers do enjoy the flattering feeling of having civil servants (who may have, earlier, been in important positions such as Collectors of districts), in their staff, who can be addressed in easy terms.

Those were also the days when nearly every senior leader carried an honorific prefixed to his or her name. Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Lala Lajpat Rai, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Babu Rajendra Prasad and Maulana Azad, to mention just a few. Such titles usually convey esteem, courtesy or respect for the position or rank of a person, and are used in addressing or referring to that person. Another common form of showing the respect to a person is not to use the first person. Soon after joining in Krishna district, for instance, I found myself being addressed as "Assistant Collector" instead of "You".

Great persons who had extraordinary achievements to their credit were also given titles, an example being as Alexander the Great. Some persons with a record for cruel and violent crimes also came to be known in a derogatory manner. Jack the Ripper is one such instance.

Formal forms of address are also quite common in solemn ambiences such as court rooms. Judges and magistrates, for example, are addressed as "My Lord", or "Your Worship". In both cases "Your Honour" is also an acceptable substitute.

In day to day life, people have suffixes such as Mr, Mrs., Miss, Ms., or Master, depending on the sex in the age. And, while addressing people it is the words "Sir" or "Madam" which are commonly used. In Hindi, for instance, "Ji" and, in Telugu, "andi" or "garu" are the equivalents.

Honorifics such as Janaab and Huzur in Hindi, and Akka and Anna (standing for sister and brother) in Telugu, forms of address which convey a feeling of respect, are also in common usage. The two Telugu addresses, in particular, are egalitarian and used for other persons irrespective of their age, status or rank.

I recall with amusement, in this context, a brother-in-law of mine, who was called 'Bavagaru' (sister's husband or 'jijaji' in Hindi) by his brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. The address stuck to him, and, over time, he came to be known as Bavagaru by all who knew him!

Christians who have taken to a religious way of life are referred to as Brothers and Sisters. Among the men, those ordained as priests are called Fathers, while Sisters who head convents are referred to as Mothers.

Every year, the government of India honours eminent people from different walks of life for their achievements with the Padma awards. They are not, strictly speaking, to be used along with the name. Still, practically every other person does it. Recipients of honorary doctorates ('honoris causa' as they are called), are also not expected to the prefix Dr. with the name. Once again it is frequently done.

A good time, perhaps, to inform the reader that my own doctorate was the result of genuine hard work and original investigation! One needs to remember that people have their own individual and distinct personality is quite different from the profession they belong to or the academic distinctions achieved by them.

Curiously enough prefixes, as well as suffixes, tend to become part of one's name, such as the three letters IAS, succeeding the name or Dr. or Prof., preceding it. A practice that, in some cases appears in bad taste. The three letters IAS for instance look very odd when they are used by persons after their names. They, after all, represent a service and or not a degree or a title! Similarly, with designations.

I must, for instance, I must have had at least 25 designations during my service. The thing to remember is that postings come and go, but one remains what one is. I used to be quite amused when a colleague of mine would keep referring to himself not by his name but as "Collector". Even while addressing others one needs to remember this principle. I say this because I knew one senior police officer who called his camp clerk, not by the name, but as "Camp Clerk". Then there are ways in which one addresses friends and relatives. Most languages make a distinction between the familiar form and the formal one, the French 'tu' and 'vous' for example. Hindi makes a similar distinction with the words 'tu' and 'tum'. The familiar way addressing friends is with expressions such as 'yaar' or the universally accepted 'guru'.

Hyderabad has its own unique additions such as 'azad'. 'miyan' in Urdu and the universally popular 'Guru' are also common. 'San' in Japanese and 'xian' and 'tai' in Chinese are also expressions which are added as suffixes and prefixes respectively when either addressing, or referring to, someone with respect.

Making comparisons between similar designations in different countries would enjoy it be a very confusing exercise. In Britain for instance' undersecretary' can either be a minister or a senior civil servant heading a department. In the United States, however, undersecretary stands for a position ranking fourth in the hierarchy in department of the federal government. The same word, in India, represents the junior most level of supervising officials in the Secretariat in the Government of India.

It is common in activities such as wrestling, as also classical music, for seniority and accomplishment to be recognised by title such as 'Ustad' and 'Pandit Ji'. In the field of sports too it is not uncommon for sportsmen to be known by special names which suit their talent and performance. Major Dhyan Chand, who led India to three Olympic medals in the game of hockey in the late 1920s and early 1930s, was nicknamed the 'Wizard' or the 'Magician' of hockey.

The great Sachin Tendulkar was known as the 'Little Master'. The yesteryear commentator, Maharaja of Vizianagaram, also known as Vizzy, often gave titles to cricketers such as 'Jai Simha the lionhearted', 'Hardikar the hard' etc.

Movie actors and singers also often accorded recognition for their accomplishments by appropriate titles. The legendary Lata Mangeshkar, for instance, was called by no less than the great Bade Ghulam Ali Khan as 'Allah ki den or God's gift'. Similarly 'Megastar' has become a second name for the South Indian film star Chiranjeevi and, in the days of yore, unforgettable actors such as Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were categorised as 'matinee idols'. And, for people of my generation Eddie Calvert will be remembered as the man who was called 'The Man with the Golden Trumpet'.

Pandit Jasraj, one of the brightest shining stars in the firmament of Hindustani classical music, passed away recently. Remembering him from my Chief Secretary's days, when we invariably met at his annual 'Sangeet Samaroha' in the Nizam College grounds at Hyderabad, I sent a note of condolence to his daughter Durga ji.

I received a reply from her a few days ago, thanking me for the sentiments, and also adding that 'Bapuji' had respect for me and regarded my presence at the annual events as 'special'. All of us enjoy respect and regard – mostly situational depending on the context, but also sincere on occasion. But, in the evening of my life, it is indeed satisfying to be told that a person so distinguished as Pandit Ji thought so well of me.

(The writer is former

Chief Secretary, Government

of Andhra Pradesh)

(The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views

of The Hans India)

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