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Forms of address: Then and now

My own wandering mind recently stopped at a village well in Siyane Korale. Named Kanuhetta it had a wide platform and a massive Kumbuk tree against which the village folk brushed their backs with fierce gusto. The Kumbuk tree, served to keep the well waters cool.

Not that I was mindful of it then, for I had been uprooted from my village culture by a peculiar set of circumstances which may explain the first incident I am going to relate. It was school vacation and I was at home away from my hostel in a sea side city.


Greetings vary according to culture

Our own well had run dry and I was forced to use this public well. But halfway through the bath I returned home sobbing.

“What on earth is the matter?” my mother asked, flummoxed.

“A man at the well called me umba. He said, umba mokada anda me lindata ave? (why did you come to this well?)

My father now having joined us just guffawed.

“Enough he didn’t ask, why did tho come to this well today?”

My mother too was aghast at that.

“Tho? Why should that man call her so? She has not committed a crime surely.”

“One needs not commit a crime to be called tho. It was simply the form of address in olden days. Go through the ancient literary works. This form of address occurs frequently. A husband would say to his wife, ‘Sondura, tho ada mata daval kema kalin lesthi karanna’ (Dear, prepare my lunch early today).”

Incidentally my father was a school head. My mother, herself a schoolteacher, was far from the docile Eastern woman.

“If you call me tho, be sure that your lunch will come after dinner”

Actually this memory of my childhood seeped into me when reading the chapter on “Forms of address” by Dr Alawattage whose book on conjugal traditions of ancient Lanka I have just finished translating. I will now go on to quote some peculiar plus edifying references to the topic. Let the edifying come first.

I may venture here an opinion that a good part of our social patterns including conversation modes seem to have been established by Buddhist India.

Here is Buddha himself setting the precedent on how to address a superior. Subsequent to his enlightenment he had first visited his former disciples who addressed him on equal terms. But he instructs,

“Do not address my by name or on equal terms.” Thus the Master rightfully asserts his authority and superiority. Yet paradoxical situations arise. A superior may call an inferior on intimate terms as sambada and sambadini. But woe befalls if the inferior one responds by calling the superior one, Sabanda or Sabadini!

One really has to be careful in this area of ‘Forms of Address’ then as now. Little “misses” can even cost you, your job. Or stall you in the ladder of promotions. Such incidents I know by experience after having worked in several offices.

Back to old times. How did a husband call a wife in those days? “Sondura’ seems to have been the usual term thugh Prof Ariyapala (According to the mentioned text) differs saying that it was a literary term used in books. Maybe the lower strata used it much less. Evidence can be got only from books where authors insert their own terms.

Women had also addressed their husbands as “Swamini”; “Himiyani”. Today modern wives cull some pet names too for their better or worse halves and vice versa. Swamini had also been used when a lower person addresses a higher person. Monks and today’s judges on the rostrum are addressed as Swamini.

Today the field of address by a man and his wife for each other is an interesting field due to the diversity. In the socially elite and Western oriented group they call each other by name.

But especially in rural Buddhist society a tradition has grown that it is sinful for a wife to call the husband by name. So they would coyly say, lamayinge thaatha, “Meya” “Araya” and so forth.

A servant woman I had used to call her husband “Lamayinge appachchi” even though she had no children! When I asked her why she did so, she replied bashfully that she would burn in hell if she called her husband, Aron Appu. If pressed further she would go on to quote the Buddha himself!

There was and is an endearing practice in our society when non-relatives too are addressed as relatives.

In which other country is the laundry woman called your aunt? But we are democratic enough to call her so. Redi Nanda is the term used for this dear homely character now eclipsed by laundries.

Perhaps the roots of addressing even strangers as relatives could be traced to the survey carried out by Vishaka Situ Doo of Buddhist India as to why so many women take Sil. In order to endear the ones subject to the research, she addresses the aged women as Amma, the middle aged and younger as Nanga or buhuni and little girls as Daruwani.

Here is seen the motive behind ie a pretence of affection for favour. But today favour or not, this practice is again noticed in our society, whether we like it or not.

Once I was at the Pensions office, seated in the corridor till the relevant officer came into his room.

A female of aristocratic bearing joined me and was chatting to me when the officer walked in who passing us said in all good faith, “ammala denna mokada ada me paththe? (why are these two mothers here?).

That put my new friend into such a rage that she told me,” If not for this blessed pension I would have given him a good knock on the head and returned home”

I also remember a taxi man who drove me round addressing me as Amme. His head was a froth of grey hair and actually I must confess that I did not relish being called amme by him.

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