The cleaning lady wanted me to fill some forms for her so that she could get an identity card for working in the apartment. She gave me her voter’s card and asked me to copy details from it. Slightly bewildered, I looked at the card twice. Her name on it said R….a Bewa. “Bewa” means widow in Urdu and I found it odd for someone to have a family name like that. When I asked her she told me that her husband passed away a few years back and since then in all the official documents her surname is written as Bewa. When he was alive she used to write her name as R…a Bibi. I was stunned. It was a tragic reflection of marital status overshadowing a woman’s identity.
After the initial shock, I brushed it off as something that perhaps still resides in a certain economic strata. After all, the women around me have moved on from the evident stamps of wearing a chooda, sindoor and bichuwa to declare their marital status to the world. They don’t even change their surnames after marriage.
I would have possibly forgotten about this incident until one day the subtler but more widespread version of it glared back at me. There it was, right in front, blatantly on a telephone bill. Those three letters “Mrs”. How different was adding a prefix to your name related to your marital status from using it as your surname? On one hand the question “are you married” is becoming taboo during the recruitment interview while on the other hand the information is readily available through the way the woman is addressed.
The obsession to address every female adult as Mrs is rampant across the country. The issue is both of identity crisis as well as social faux pas. The online forms for many applications may give one an option to select Ms which is agnostic to the marital status, but most printed official documents like utility bills, government issued notices would by default address the recipient woman as Mrs XXXX. Look at an electricity bill from a state electrical board. It only has an option of Mrs or Shrimati (Hindi title for adult married female) for a woman resident.
Funnily Mrs does not have an official full form. It is believed to have initiated from Mistress following Mr which originated from Master. However in India it is pronounced in various different forms like – missus, misses, meesez, meesej, or missis. Such is our fondness for this term that it has also become a synonym for wife amongst the 'trying to be urbane' population. How can we forget the detergent ad with a man constantly harping “Meesez (Mrs) ko boliye brush lagane ka!” or the paint ad with the punch line “naya ghar, nayi Meesez , badhiya hai”.
After much debate for many years, around the 1980s, Ms was accepted in the English language as a more appropriate way of addressing women instead of an allusion to their marital status through a Miss or Mrs. But there is no such equivalent in Hindi. The only two titles for addressing women are Shrimati (for married) and Kumari (unmarried). Perhaps since our language does not support any other format of female existence, we refuse to move on from imposing the use of Mrs.
It took 85 years for “Ms” to be accepted. I wonder how long it will take to have an Indian equivalent or for us to adopt “Ms” in our local dialects in the absence of a corresponding term. Come to think of it, after all these years there is still no hindi word for divorcee (the commonly used term talaqshuda has been borrowed from Urdu). I hope that we will cross the bridge soon and stop prefixing the marital status badge as the title. Else with the growing fascination for peeping inside bedrooms, it won’t be surprising if someday we see the number of children people have as a suffix to their names...