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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Behan Ji

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If you want to address a stranger of about your own age as grown up in India, you would mostly call him Bhai Sahab and call her Behan Ji. At least, you could, till few years ago.

Indians are very fond and proud of iconic speech by Swami Vivekananda in Parliament of World’s Religions in late nineteenth century in Chicago where he represented Hinduism and shocked the western civilization by addressing his audience as “brothers and sisters” against the prevailing “ladies and gentlemen”. Notion that people around you can be treated as family members was, and still is, unfamiliar to occidental world. In Hindu philosophy notion of world as large family is evident in Vasudhev Kutumbkam shloka of early scriptures. Students in schools are still made to pledge that India is our country and all Indians are our brothers and sisters. “Except one”, students would mostly add under the breath, to maintain possibility of their potential matrimony.

As is customary with all good Indian things in India, we discarded address of ‘brothers and sisters’ and adopted ‘ladies and gentlemen’, unless, of course, western world adopts it, in which case we will be eager to adopt again and happy to claim our heritage, as we did in case of Yog. Tendency to delegates things Indian to things inferior made Bhai Sahab and Behan Ji a sign of illiterate buffoonery. These were replaced by Sir and Madam, in line with our British historical precedent.

For some reason, I am not sure why, but I blame umbrella term “modernization”, Bhai Sahab didn’t suffer as much as Behan Ji did. If you are a man, you would typically not call a man Bhai Sahab, but it would still be okay if you did. If you are woman, you will mostly call a man Bhai Sahab. It’s our way of forewarning and drawing boundaries by relationship association. Whether you are man or woman, you definitely would not call a woman Behan Ji unless you really want to loathed by her. Who knows who was to start this but somehow such term of gentility, purity and respect has come to mean traditional, conservative, un-cool, unbeautiful, and non-modern woman and is matter of laughing stock in urban youth.

Deepti Naval (youtube link) in Angoor (1982) is one good example of what is considered Behan Ji these days. What a grace and what demeanor she had! We always seem to abandon wrong part of our culture.

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