I just read Dreams from My Father, the memoir Barack Obama wrote when he was in law school. It’s an amazing book and especially insightful on questions of race and identity.

One of the cute things in the book is that Obama called his grandmother Toots. It was an approximation of Tutu, the word for grandma in Hawaii where he grew up. Apparently, his grandmum wasn’t keen on being called grandmother or its English variants.

This reminded me of a Jezebel piece on grandmothers who do not want to be called grandma and the ensuing discussion on what to call them.

When you have kids and there are four people who need to be called something, especially if you’re all from the same community, it can become an issue-in-the-making. Similar to the confusion when people get married and start to call their parents-in-law variants of mummy and daddy. Suddenly, there are two mummies and two daddies and if they are all in the same place, it’s a little awkward. Do you mean your real mummy or the other one? All this can be solved if the parents are referred to as different variants of mummy (like amma or aiee) but unfortunately, V and I, both called our mothers mummy and V’s two brother-in-laws also called his mum mummy so it would be weird for me to adopt a different nomenclature from them. I solved this problem by not calling her anything, or sporadically, aunty. That’s a different issue, however, fraught with different kinds of tensions.

Back to grander things. We refer to my parents as Grandma and Grandpa, because these are the names my sister chose for my niece to call them.* We refer to V’s parents as Appapen and Ammamma, which are Malayalam words, so that’s conveniently sorted out.

However. It has turned out that Ammamma and Appapen are much easier to say than Grandma and Grandpa, which are really unwieldy for a child. So Benji actually says Ammamma but not Grandma, which is a little out-putting for me. Hope my mother never hears of this.

Also, V’s mother’s sister visited and it turns out that in Malayalam, she is also to be called Ammamma. I find this a bit odd and I think it would be confusing for a child. In my mind, a grandmother is a special person and should have her own title. V’s aunt acknowledged this but when I suggested another name, she bristled. She also had a different problem from the one the ladies mentioned in the Jezebel story had – she wanted a name that conveyed all the respect according to an older person; she demanded grandaunt and not the younger aunt status. Her husband is Tamil, and therefore she suggested he can be called Thatha. But when I suggested that she be called the female version of Thatha (Thathi?) she bristled again. At that point, I gave up. We don’t see her that often anyway. And if Benji gets mixed up between her and his paternal grandmother, that’s for them to sort out.

It also made me think about how we ended up calling my grandparents what we did. My dad’s parents were called Papa and Nana and my mum’s mum was called Granna and then the more trendy Gran (my Gran is very trendy – the kind that argues on behalf of her grandchildren for shorter skirts and nailpolish). Tragically I cannot remember what we referred to my mother’s father as (he died before we were born) – I think it was Granpda J (his first name). Quite formal and it never caught on, not helped by the fact that we never met him.

I’m not sure who decided these names. On my mother’s side there were plenty of cousins before us so we went with what they used. On my dad’s, my sister was the first grandchild. I must ask my mum how Papa nad Nana were arrived at. My cousin B on my dad’s side called her mother’s parents Avo and Ava, which are Portuguese words, or something of the sort. Some of my cousins on my mum’s side also called their grandaunts on their mum’s side Ti, which is the Portuguese word for aunty.

An interesting predicament is also what to call great-grandparents. My Gran, who will be 98 this year, has lived to seen 19 (I think, losing track of my cousin’s kids) great-grandchildren born. In ancient times, I don’t think this was that common because people just didn’t live that long. What do my kids call her? We are going with Gran, which is the same thing that we call her, and it’s easier for me to think of her as their grandmother than as their great-grandmother.

 What do you call your grandparents and how did you arrive at calling them that?



*My sister and I are not entirely clear what we want our children to call each of us. On V’s side, his sisters are referred to as Amaiee and his sister’s daughter also calls me Amaiee. This was sorted out at some elder family level and we were duly informed. I thought Amaiee was very close to Amma but it seemed children can make these distinctions. V himself was completely confused – he insisted it should be Veliamma until he was set right by his mother. He was also startled to realise that Mema, the word they called his mother’s sisters, was not a word at all but a baby’s mispronunciation of Amaiee.

V informed my sister that he would like Sibear to call him The Dude but no-one has taken him seriously on that. So far we are referring to each other by our first names, which is going to result in the dastardly Western tradition of the children referring to adults by their first names and I can’t say I care very much.