Thursday, April 26, 2007

the cousin-brother and cousin-sister

When Americans first start moving in pukka desi circles, they will be confused the first time they hear someone say something like..."I am going to Madras for my cousin-brother's wedding." Or, similarly when I was talking of one of my cousins, I was asked to clarify
whether I was talking about my cousin-sister or cousin-brother.

I thought that the sibling modifier was just to indicate to people the cousin's gender. Most languages in India have specific words for specific relationships. I studied Tamil and my mind swirled during one session where my teacher was telling me "ok, your husband's aunt on his father's side is called X. your husband's uncle on the other side is called X. No simple Uncle Steve and Aunt Faye here, but still no ambiguity as to how exactly that person is related to you. My daughter calls her father's father just that...in malayalam it is achachan - achan is father and they contract it to achachan.

So I asked my husband one day why people used the term "cousin- brother" or "cousin-sister." He explained that the sibling modifier is not just an indication of gender, but of the closeness that people feel with that relationship. In western families, the core or nuclear unit is all-important and all others are just secondary. In India, the core is important but each person connected to any given family is promoted a rung. For instance, cousins become brothers and
sisters, second cousins become first cousins, aunts and uncles are secondary parents (my husband calls his mom's younger sister "little mommy,' and his dad's younger brother "little dad", and any and every other person who is older than you is either called "older brother" or "uncle" or "elder sister" or "auntie," depending on the age difference.

When you are in India, you will hear so many people calling someone "Bhai" or "Bhaiya" (Hindi), "Ana" or "Aka" (Tamil).... to entreat the Rickwalla (Autorickshaw driver) not to cheat you, you might say "Meter Down, Bhai" as you get into the Auto.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Then what are your mother's or father's elder sisters and brothers called? Big momma? Big daddy?

Elisa

Firangi Mommy said...

Exxactly!

Anonymous said...

I called the elder ones either mommy and papa or referred to them as apachen and ammachi if they were really old cuz that is the term used for grandparents. just so confusing. i gave up trying to explain it but jill has done a great job. susan

Karn said...

haha :) In sophomore year I was with some American friends playing poker and used the phrase cousin-brother; when they all just gave me weird looks and we had this same discussion.

Its funny and interesting to read how it was on the other side

Rose said...

OMG I can't tell you how much I identify with your experiences. I am in Bangalore now and will be till at least june 2010, maybe even thru the summer. My kids 14 and 9 years old spent the first 3-4 months here really resenting our move. They missed everything about the US. They're adapting now, so things should get easier. We came this past May coz my husband is on a one year sabbatical from the university in Michigan where we teach. Looking forward to reading more from you. It's therapeutic for me too coz some days I am really wonder if this was such a great idea tho' for the most part I am liking it. We felt it was necessary for the kids to be exposed to india at this age coz thay didn't have a clue what to expect. I don't know what we would do without Barbeqie Nation, Mc donalds (for the younger one) TGI Fridays Ruby Tuesdays. It's helping us cope. Looking forward to commiserating....

Rose said...

OMG I can't tell you how much I identify with your experiences. I am in Bangalore now and will be till at least june 2010, maybe even thru the summer. My kids 14 and 9 years old spent the first 3-4 months here really resenting our move. They missed everything about the US. They're adapting now, so things should get easier. We came this past May coz my husband is on a one year sabbatical from the university in Michigan where we teach. Looking forward to reading more from you. It's therapeutic for me too coz some days I am really wonder if this was such a great idea tho' for the most part I am liking it. We felt it was necessary for the kids to be exposed to india at this age coz thay didn't have a clue what to expect. I don't know what we would do without Barbeqie Nation, Mc donalds (for the younger one) TGI Fridays Ruby Tuesdays. It's helping us cope. Looking forward to commiserating....

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