The meaning of “Bai”

Although her name was Anandi, she always referred to herself as Anandibai. even signing letters by that compound name. As a result, Americans who came to know her believed that her name was Anandibai.

Here is a brief summary of the multiple meanings of bai and why, in my telling of her story, I decided to drop the suffix.

In Maharashtrian culture, bai is a commonly used suffix for women’s names. It was appended to a woman’s name to add gravitas and to establish a formal — as opposed to familiar — basis for communication. This is somewhat like the American custom (which, like bai, is in retreat) of referring to older or less-familiar people as Mr. Smith or Mrs. Johnson. For example, the mother of a bride (or groom) appended the suffix to the name of the groom’s (or bride’s) mother when addressing her or referring to her.

The bai suffix was also used to refer to women of high station such as Rani Laxmibai, the young queen who valiantly fought the British in 1857. Anandi’s contemporary (and cousin) Rama Dongre, was (Pandita) Ramabai. Mahatma Gandhi’s mother’s name was Putlibai. The mother of Shivaji, the Maratha ruler, was Jijabai. SNDT, the women’s university in India, is named after Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey. In the Parsi community, the word bai was used both as a prefix and as a suffix in the same sense as Madame (for example, Bai Dinbai Nasarvanji Petit). Women teachers were referred to as “Bai”, as in, “Ask Bai if there is any homework for tomorrow.”

However, the word bai was not always used as an honorific.

In the present day, the word bai is used to address women who work as household help. In this form, it is a non-specific way of addressing a woman of lower station than oneself. Although no disrespect is intended or perceived, the usage does smack of a certain indifference towards the helper’s person-hood.  Even so, bai is not used in the same demeaning sense as the word “boy” was used in the pre-Civil Rights era American South to address a “colored” male, regardless of his age or social standing.

In North India the bai suffix was attached to the names of professional singers or dancers.  Since these performers existed outside “family values” society, the use of bai in this context, did not imply respectability. However, in light of the performer’s age or talent, it did imply acknowledgment of talent.

~~~

When I started writing the story, I had to decide how I would refer to the central character.

I realized that I did not want to use the bai suffix  because it made her seem less accessible; somewhat like putting her on a pedestal before she had even been introduced. In addition, as I got to know her character and her successes and challenges, she was no longer a distant, historic and larger-than-life figure.

I came to see her as (and wanted to persuade readers to see her as)  — a nineteen-year-old girl-woman; one who was utterly vulnerable and who persevered and triumphed in two diametrically different climes and cultures.   She was no longer Anandi-bai, or Mrs. Joshee or Dr. Joshee or even, just Joshee.

In her nineteenth century public life she answered to those monikers. In this telling of her story, venturing as close as possible to her inner life, it feels right that she should be called by the name by which she knew herself: just, Anandi.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s