Munavarbhai is a 42-year-old watch-guard (chokidar) of a middle-class Muslim housing society in a suburb of Ahmedabad, the Indian state of Gujarat’s largest city. His wife Haneiferben does domestic work, but also intermittently works as a house cleaner for Hindu and Muslim middle-class families. Munavarbhai and Haneiferben belong to the informal sector of Ahmedabad’s highly stratified economy. Their nuclear family consists of four heads and has to make do with approximately RS 5,000 a month (roughly US $80). They live in an area of Juhapura called Fatehvadi, in proximity with various rishtedar (relatives) including members of their respective kutumbvala (members of the patriline) interspersed with houses of migrant laborers from outside the state (mostly from Uttar Pradesh) and various other Muslim communities. They hold close social connections with their respective home villages, in which they are officially registered, and to which they regularly return for marriages, festivals, and political elections.
Fatehvadi is an underdeveloped suburban landscape of partly-plastered and partly-un-plastered private brick houses, myriad of cement mosques, an unfinished school, square cemented shops, and piles of unused construction materials: bricks (id), steel beams (salia), steel plates for cement work (farmar), piles of sand material, and wooden beams (teko) for further construction lying all about. There are no paved roads or a central rain drainage system—locals say “without a gutterline,” meaning that there is also no sewage system. The area floods dangerously during the monsoon every year. Each house has a khalkho (sink pit for sewage), and individual bore-wells dug for water access. At night the area is hard to navigate as there is no street lighting. Cable connections are provided illegally by local dons (also called dadas) who are unambiguously considered dangerous local players. One tries to avoid any conflict with them.
During the day the area is vibrant with people, noise, celebrations, and frequent violent altercations between neighbors, including between relatives. The area has an overall improvised feel about it. It is an unfinished terrain filled with lives that cope with and navigate solutions to intractable problems.
I asked Munavar, recently, why he never addresses his wife Haneiferben by using her first name, “Haneifer.” Munavar always says “Yasmin” when addressing Haneifer, and she, in turn, always addresses him as “Asif.” Yasmin and Asif are the names of their children, daughter and son, respectively. Haneifer and Munavar engage in this practice automatically and without exception, even when they are not directly sitting or standing together. For example, we sit on the unfinished cement roof of their tiny crooked house, and Munavar wants his wife to bring some water in the afternoon heat. He will shout, from upstairs, “ey, Yasmiiin… pani apo,” to which she will answer “ha” from downstairs.
I can never understand how the sixteen year-old daughter, whose name indeed is Yasmin, and who herself frequently brings water or tea, can distinguish between the cases when her father addresses her personally or when he addresses his wife Haneifer by using the daughter’s first name. In the ten years that I’ve known them, I have never seen a misunderstanding. I have speculated in the past that this routine indirect address, which even if making a detour via their children’s first names never fails to find the correct addressee, might work so well because of voice intonation or of situational contexts. Nonetheless, it has remained somewhat puzzling to me.
An address launched in utterance and speech carries importance in Gujarat. One can find many epithets, pre-and post-fixes, that indicate subtle forms of politeness and hierarchy expressed in them. I, too, can never call on Munavar’s wife by using her first name Haneifer. I have to say Haneiferben—ben being the short form of behen, sister. I can only address Haneifer as a classificatory sister, and the equivalent holds true when she addresses me. She says Parvezbhai (bhai is familiar for brother or cousin, or polite and honorific for friend, respectively).
In several waves of questioning, I ask Munavar about the way he addresses his wife through indirect address, a behavior that I witness daily. He begins by saying that, were he and his wife not to have conceived their two children, he would simply say, “ey” when addressing his wife. Then he laughs. He continues with a kahevat (a proverb, literally “a saying”): “Potanu patni [or bairi] bada no le, pan potana admi no na le.” The proverb is characteristic for how it does not mention the main object of what it addresses.
“Everyone takes it [the name] of one’s wife, but the husband (man) himself does not.”
Or: “Of one’s own wife everyone takes it [the name] but the husband (man) does not.”
The basic characteristic of the proverb in the original Gujarati is that the word “naam” for name does not have to appear for everyone to know what is meant. The solution, or answer (javab), to the proverb is what remains unstated: the word for “name” (naam).
Many proverbs are structured in this manner. What is meant is never mentioned, which makes for the attractiveness of the proverb, the reason why it “sticks” and appears in the mind so automatically. A proverb emerges in the head of the speaker naturally, or automatically. Munavar says, it comes “otometik” or “kudarati thi”—in a natural way. Gujarati proverbs are not learned in school, an institution into which Munavar and Haneifer send their children with vociferous insistence, but which Haneifer has only seen from the outside and Munavar only for a few clueless years. Munavar blames himself for this cluelessness. “I did not see the importance at the time,” he admits to me. Munavar grows increasingly embarrassed by this fact in his relation to me. We initially met a few months after the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, when I changed my residence from a Hindu to a Muslim residential location. Proverbs also are not learned in a madrasa, an Islamic school, which Yasmin attends intermittently whenever family funds permit. She has an aptitude for Urdu and even knows some Arabic words, but is shy to engage in a discussion with me on this. It is a common local routine to call Urdu “Arabic” or to assume that the Qu’ran was originally written in Urdu. Yasmin is considered smart, while her younger brother is not. Yasmin is worried that in a longer discussion with me she might make a mistake and stand corrected in front of her parents, who show such pride in her intellectual aptitude.
Gujarati proverbs do not become internal the way formal Islamic prayer practices were imbibed at some point: the words from the Qu’ran spoken in Arabic, the bodily movements during ritual ablutions, ghusl and wajhu, and their translation into intelligible Hindi and Gujarati. To the Pathans of Fatehvadi, these formal prayer acts and utterances have become like a second skin, something one cannot imagine not knowing about. They belong to the symbolic armature of being a Muslim in Juhapura. The sound of Arabic, although for this population formerly an unknown foreign language, has become familiar today. There is a global Muslim community out there and these words and movements belong to that larger world. The Pathans know themselves to be somehow part of that world. But with Gujarati proverbs, it’s a different thing.
Proverbs stick despite or perhaps because they were never consciously learned, which means to say, no labor was invested in acquiring or learning them: no time or money was invested. Munavar says, using an English verb in Gujarati, no time or money had to be “vestad,” in other words “wasted” in the sense of expended. Proverbs are not a return for an investment in learning and they seem to have no utility, at least none that Munavar can think of. “They simply come into the mind,” he says (“e man ma ave chhe, bas”), as if they came from elsewhere or from nowhere at all.
Proverbs can even be remembered by someone like Munavar, who always insists, somewhat coyly, that he is not at all smart (hoshiyar nathi) because he was not educated (banela nathi). He frequently pauses and waits for me to disagree when he says this, and he looks disappointed if I ever miss the opportunity to repeat a compliment, namely, that he is very intelligent, especially for someone who has not ever seriously visited a school, does not read or write Gujarati to any sufficient degree, and besides knowing the English numbering systems, has no real access to the ever growing English-lettered world surrounding him: the new urban signs, the scripts written on daily use items that are imported like soap, toothpaste, and the expensive razor blade packages which come in so many confusing selections. (Munavar likes to be clean shaven; he says a beard makes him look ugly.) The new urban signs indicating names and locations of shopping malls, gardens, temples, recently erected flyovers, or bridges spanning a booming city, are reminders of his limitation of comprehension. He frequently navigates city traffic by pointing to a sign visible on the road, asking me: “What does that mean? or “What does this say?” He then registers the shape and size of the sign, the color of the script, in order to remember the name attached to it.
That the central word indicated in the proverb is internal to its meaning, which constitutes its javab—a response, an answer—but is not mentioned explicitly, allows for much ambiguity if one were to play on words and meanings, emphasized by the verb “le” (from levu), here “to take” in the sense of “to speak.” The ambiguity lies in the question of what it is exactly that one might take from another man’s wife that the husband himself does not, or cannot. To take the name here means to speak the name. But the word “name” remains unmentioned yet signified implicitly, which establishes the force and ambiguity of the proverb. Munavar explains that it is hidden, secret (“gupt”). Munavar confidently tells me that everyone who is Gujarati like himself understands what’s missing here and hence what the proverb really means to say. And yet it remains ambiguous. It can lead to laughter. The “secret” is a public secret that is suggestive.
After mentioning a proverb in which the word for name is missing, in order to explain to me why he does not take the first name of his wife in daily address, Munavar offers a longer explanation of its ramifications. The name of one’s wife is not spoken in an address, or reversely, she does not speak her husband’s name. This is mainly the case in their direct mutual presence. I suspect that this routine behavior was stricter in former times where one did not speak one’s spouse’s name in the presence of one’s in-laws. In the respective villages from which Haneifer and Munavar originate, patterns of post-marital residence are virilocal without fail: The wife always resides in the village and household of her in-laws, which give the rules of marital affinity their full due. The bride who married into the household must veil her face (“laj kadhe chhe or ghunghat pade chhe“) in front of all male in-laws who are older than her husband, such as her husband’s elder brother and father, as well as her husband’s sister’s husband, if he is older than her own husband. This is customary practice, which Munavar refers to as maryada, and is followed also by many Hindus. The wife must relate to her in-laws through forms of modesty, avoidance, respect, decorum, and devotion. To speak one’s husband’s name in one’s in-laws’ presence would lead to what Munavar calls sharmay (shyness, shamefulness, embarrassment; literally, “to be influenced by one’s status of prestige”), the way Haneifer is always a little ashamed when I speak of him in her presence or of her in his presence. And yet this explanation cannot account for the fact that Munavar, too, does not take his wife’s name in her presence, while, like Haneiferben, he has no problems whatsoever pronouncing her name in her absence. When she is absent, he will use the proper name Haneifer, while everybody else must add the epithet ben indicating the non-marital relation thus expressed. In her absence, he can utter her name in its unaffected original form.
The omission of the name in marital address expresses a link between the couple. It is a link that I cannot see and with which I am not familiar. Somehow, Munavar and Haneifer are simultaneously more and less than two individuals each with a first name bound by an arranged marriage. And I must say, comparatively speaking, they are a very happy couple, if there was any way to estimate that in an objective manner. Munavar several times went out of his way to tell me that the best thing that ever happened to him in life is to have married Haneifer. She has kept true to him through poverty and tough times, the joblessness and cluelessness that accompanies a labor migrant from the village such as him who is employed in Ahmedabad’s vast informal economy. The social space they occupy is altered by their mutual presence, and if I address her directly, he will sometimes answer, and vice versa. Presence, here, must not simply be physical, as Munavar can also be present when he is not physically there, leading to her sharmay. Somehow his presence as husband is more than just a physical presence.
Munavar, habituated to my annoying questions on matters that he never had to explain to anyone before, attempts a more theoretical explanation in the discussion that follows. He refers to this behavior with reference to parampara (tradition, –ik traditional) and he initially found it rather futile to ponder over it. Anyway, he added, today some people do in fact address their spouse by first name. He insists, however, that among Muslims in Juhapura, the people of the village of Virodchannagar (gam na valao), not a single one would do so. Now Munavar says this behavior is not the expression of maryada (a question of limitation, boundary, modesty), but of parampara. It has existed for a long time (udpadan thayu—it was born, meaning that it was born automatically), while maryada in his opinion is observed only by those who are hoshiyar, that is, educated and intellectually sophisticated. Maryada is hence learned behavior for Munavar—a form of civilization—while parampara defines a more immediate, customary, and hence natural behavior.
I am not at all satisfied with Munavar’s answer. In fact, the answer leaves me somewhat confused. In my understanding of Gujarati, I might even have used the two terms he employed here, maryada and parampara, exactly the other way around. It is always difficult to ask questions about things that people do unselfconsciously, because such practices de facto lack an explanation. But I continue to ask. In his struggle to satisfy my demand for explanation, which initially annoys him a bit but then which he comes to enjoy, Munavar brings forth another proverb, which again makes him laugh: “Bairu tamari (i.e. patni) akhi duniya ni batave, pan potana admin no na batave.”
“Your wife shows [it] to the whole world, but not to her own husband.”
Again the main word is missing, omitted in the proverb indicated in English by the word “it,” suggestive in its many possibilities. The proverb indicates what is missing as if the proverb were a riddle. What is missing in this case is the word randapo (widow) or safed kapdu, the white cloth worn by the widow after her husband has passed away. As we talk, Haneiferben’s mother is sitting a few street corners over in the pathway dust on her katlo (traditional wood-framed bed), wearing the widow’s white cloth. Munavar triumphantly explains to me that only after the husband is dead will the widow wear white, and hence the whole world gets to see her in white, while her husband never does. She will never show herself to him in white despite the fact that they are intimate and he gets to see all kind of other aspects of her during his lifetime (such as various forms of nakedness, her desires, her sickness, her anger, her mouth while chewing food, etc.).
These proverbs address that which escapes marital intimacy, which remains external to the conjugal union and to the relation of mutual possession between husband and wife. But the ambiguity of the sentence “Your wife shows [it] to the whole world (…)” (“bairu tamari akhi duniya ni batave“) after the demise of the husband, is no mere coincidence, as the Gujarati word rand, which means widow, can also mean prostitute.
What do we have here? The relation between husband and wife as suggested by these two proverbs is structured around an omission, around what is kept from the respective spouse: the speaking of the proper name in the address and the sign of death in widowhood, which also ambiguously plays with sexual access as she is no longer locked in marriage after he is gone. While both, Munavar and Haneifer, know “it,” they cannot own that experience. Munavar insists that he has never called his wife by her first name to her face since they were married. And before that, he barely knew her first name nor would have let himself know her proper first name. This is not an experience he feels that he lacks, however. In fact he remains adamant that not addressing her by her first name is a natural avoidance internal to the way he conceives of his relationship with her. Intimacy here is constructed through omission, through that which is not lent or offered into exchange with one’s spouse, while most other things are shared (food, money, intimate speech, bodily fluids).
It is, I believe, very significant that Munavar, when trying to help me understand why he never addresses his wife by her proper name in her presence, automatically associates with this practice a proverb that tells of a husband not ever uttering his wife’s name, in contrast to others who possess that possibility (his neighbors, his kin relations, his boss). His omission is related to their access. The proverb does that by omitting the word “name” in its morphological form, which becomes the reason the proverb “sticks” in the mind. Tortured by my subsequent questioning, as he still had not offered me a satisfactory answer, Munavar next associates a second proverb, one that again omits what it expresses, but this time relating to death, the ultimate omission, where she wears the dress that marks his final omission from life. While everyone gets to see her in the white dress, he does not. If she wears it, he will already be dead. What he cannot have of her defines his closeness to her.
There seems to be a form of recognition at work here that the use of the proper name delineates something apart. Its omission, or rather its substitution, a detour via the children’s names, reconstructs the link that risks being severed through the proper name’s utterance in marital address. It does this by implicating the products of descent and affinity through one’s children, who neither mind to loose control over their names, nor find it confusing that their parents relate to one another through their respective first names in regular daily address. What kind of a relationship is indicated here?
By avoiding uttering the proper names in marital address, a relationship is expressed that indicates intimacy, an intimacy that is prior to language (and prior to the possession of a name). However that relationship was obtained in and through marriage, that is, after language had been acquired (as well as a name by birth). There is thus recognition given to the alienating effects of nomination, which are characterized by the fact that if a name can be spoken in an address, the thing named, or rather the person named, becomes available to others as well, and thus in a sense is external to, or alienated from, the spousal intimacy. Language implies a collective, a society. What is intimate cannot appear in language without belonging to everyone else also. What the practice at hand seems to suggest, then, is that the individuals involved in the marital relationship become available to others in a different way than they become available to each other in their mutual presence. Intimacy here is established through the avoidance of naming in the daily routine of mutual address. Subtracting or substituting their names in one another’s presence means to not speak what everyone else is likely to say when addressing them individually.
All the interlocutors whom I know in the Fatehvadi area of Juhapura follow this quotidian naming practice, without fail. In the few cases where couples do not have children and the substitution of children’s names for proper names is not possible, the practice is nonetheless followed. Munavar mentioned the substitutive utterance “ey.” There are many other examples. Afsana and Mohammad are another married couple from the same community. Mohammad calls his wife Khatoun, using as the address term their daughter’s first name. Amidaben, in turn, addresses her husband with Khatoun na bapa (“Khatoun’s father”), as they have no son who could provide a name for the address. Hence, while lacking a son, Mohammad and Khatoun both nonetheless hold to this practice without fail. It is not clear to me what happens when the son or daughter are given the same name as their father or mother respectively, as I have not as of yet encountered this situation.