HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s stirring speech in Parliament advocating a terrifying sort of nationalism provoked a newspaper into a naughty headline: “Aunty National”. It has been criticised as a cheap sexist tactic, misogynist in nature. Criticise her policies not her appearance, screeched angry feminists on Twitter. The criticism that a newspaper has to be held to a higher standard than the social media discourse is correct but the objection presupposes aunty is a bad word, maybe even an insult. Actually in India, everyone is aunty and uncle. All my children’s friends call me aunty (much to my dismay I must admit) but I have long since given up objecting. Recently, I ticked off a 54-year-old friend of mine who had the gall to refer to my 63-year-old mother as aunty. Never mind my age, she’s your mother, so that makes her aunty, he insisted firmly. Aunty is rooted in respect even if in this particular case some people chose to read it as derisive of Ms Irani’s age and appearance.
Everywhere in the world, public figures are judged not just for what they say but what they wear and how they come across. These are the pitfalls of being famous, the media tears you apart and people make fun of you. Reams have been devoted to Michelle Obama’s wardrobe and her muscular arms (not all flattering). Democrat hopeful Hilary Clinton’s attire is carefully constructed by a team of publicists, her body language constantly scrutinised. Mainstream newspapers in the US have speculated if Donald Trump wears a wig and whether Air Force One will be renamed Hair Force One if he becomes President. Besides, no other Indian politician has so successfully cultivated an older person image than Ms Irani. At 26, she played the role of a 40-something daughter-in-law in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. A decade after the show ended, Irani still looks exactly like the virtuous Tulsi and seems to have adopted the part as her signature in real life. After all, how often do we see city bred, 30-something Indian women, who’ve been an integral part of the modelling and acting industry in India, brandish sindoor?
For those who think aunty is derogatory; let it be the figure of speech it is. The increasingly narrow definition of nationalism prevalent right now has something in common with contemporary feminism in India, which is too judgmental and immature. You can feel strongly about the gender pay gap, rape and female infanticide but also laugh at a harmless pun and not read so much into it. The HRD Minister quoted Shakespeare during her outburst in Parliament. “Fair is foul and foul is fair” at a basic level refers to a reversal of roles. Rather like that other Macbeth quote, “nothing is, but what is not”, a difficult idea relevant to our times, that what we’re seeing is (hopefully) not real.