When I learned the news that I was going to be an aunt, one of my first thoughts (after “OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG!”, of course) was that my little niece/nephew was going to call me “Athai” (the Tamil word for paternal aunt). Now, of the three aunt words I could’ve been assigned, ‘athai’ is the one I like the least. It has nothing to do with the person the word has been assigned to (my own athais are all great). Rather, it’s one of those words that just feels old. Athais are usually married (to athimberes), their kids are older than you, they cook yummy food and scold you if you drink too much water during meals – they’re motherly. I was going to be an athai, and, at 23, I was none of those things. I was going to be an anomaly in the world of relatives – I was going to be a young athai.
But this was a petty thing to be worrying about – I was going to be an aunt to an actual human being! And when this little human being was actually born, all thoughts of impeding old age in the form of athai-dom went out the window. I had a niece! This tiny, tiny human was related to me! Not just that, she would be related to me FOR LIFE. I was going to be her friend, her teacher (English and Biology only, please), her confidante and partner-in-crime. What did it matter what she called me? We were linked by blood (say that dramatically, because that’s how I’m saying it as I write it), and nothing could change that.
But I needn’t have worried. She probably had an inkling about my athai worries as soon as she was born (she is my niece, after all), because when she was old enough to start talking, she started calling me “Thathai”. It was a mispronunciation, but I grabbed at the opportunity to change my destiny. She had inadvertently cute-sified the word (I was totally willing to be a thathai – it definitely did not have the same old-person ring as athai), and I wasn’t going to let the chance slip. I warned everyone not to correct her – thathai was what I was going to be. FOR LIFE.
But my little human being had other plans for me. Better plans. A year or so later, slowly gaining her own independent sense of humour, she decided to modify everyone’s names to make them cuter. First Mama and Poppy became Momsie and Popsie, then Patti and Thatha (grandmom and granddad) became Patsie and Thatsie. When I learned of this change, I confronted her about what my new name was going to be. I had thought she’d be a little daunted by the idea of making my moniker three-syllabled, but nope, easy as pie, she declared, “Thathaisie!”
It was a mouthful, so that phase didn’t last very long, but one day, without warning, I was Tootooie. At least, that’s how I spelled it in my head until she put it down in writing recently and spelled it “Thuthuy”, giving me a mini heart attack. My brain immediately conjured up images of her spitting at me in disgust (“thu, thu, eeeee!”), so I hurriedly got her to change it to the much cuter and less scarring “Tootooie”, and now I just have to lather, rinse, repeat the lesson until it sticks.
Anyway, the transition from Thathaisie to Tootooie (whichever way it’s spelt) was one I was gung-ho about, because I could tell it was taking me further and further away from ‘athai’. It’s catchy too – the official Tootooie song is sung to the tune of Ek Shararat from Duplicate (“tootooie-tooie-tooie-tootooie-tootooie-tooie!”). Even now, whenever she runs towards me, yelling “Tootooie! Tootooie!” (a sight that is heart-melting in itself), and whoever I’m with turns to me with a bemused grin and asks me why she calls me that, I sigh contentedly, knowing the athai connection is slowly being broken. “It’s a long story,” I say. It is. It’s been an evolution.
People ask me if I’ll still like it if she calls me Tootooie when I’m 44 and in actual athai territory (happily married to Tootimbere?), but I love the idea of being called something cutesy when I’m older. Knowing my niece and her endless bound of imagination, though, it would probably have changed by then, most likely to something even more undecipherable. God only knows what she has in store for me next.
I only know that I’m eagerly looking forward to it.