Shobhaa De who was the subject of attention. When the Shiv Sena took exception to Shobhaa De tweets on Marathi snacks instead of popcorn in cinema halls while she protested against their call for compulsory screening of Marathi films in theatres, the party responded by taking a morcha to her residence equipped with baskets of vada pav and misal for “Shobhaa aunty”.
In both instances, uncle and aunty were not meant as a compliment or, as they would mean in original usage, in reverence for an older relative – the mother or brother of a parent. Both in the case of the AI pilot and dear De, the terms had negative connotations.
Perhaps nowhere in the world do the terms uncle and aunty have so many meanings and connotations as in India.
In its traditional usage, uncle and aunty are terms used for relatives by blood or marriage in western English speaking societies – a parent’s brother or sister or their spouse.
In modern day India, the terms initially began to be used in many families interchangeably with bua or masi or tai and tau, the Hindi equivalents for maternal and paternal aunts and uncles. This modern digital avatar of the aunty and bhabhi also perhaps logically has its roots in tradition, where folksongs in many cultures make sexual innuendoes pertaining to the brother’s wife.
Shobhaa De sexualisation also has led to demeaning, age shaming, and sexuality shaming insinuations in today’s context – as in the case of De, who could not have been called aunty respectfully by the Shiv Sena, given that they were leading a protest against her. Given the context, it was derogatory usage, meant to humiliate.
And therein lies the brief but complicated history of the indianised uncle and aunty, forever changing, versatile in usage, and, as with most things, slightly more tilted against the aunty as a tool of sexism and public humiliation.