Friday, March 8, 2013

This Woman's Day is all about Aunts

In literature, aunts are the most unappreciated and yet, some of the most memorable characters. More often they are villains who try and create problems for the protagonists in every possible manner. At the same time, there are aunts who change the lives of their nieces and nephews with their own courage, ingenuity and spirit of adventure.

Among the books I’ve read (which is a pitiful number) the most adventurous of the lot is, without a doubt, Aunt Augusta, Henry Pulling’s crazy aunt and the woman of Graham Greene’s entertaining novel, Travels with my Aunt. This 75 year old woman has the spirit of a 20 year old and is not just young at heart but also in possession of great wit. Her adventures take Henry from the serenity of his home (and his dahlias, which are his one great obsession of retired life) to Paris, Turkey, and finally to Paraguay. Suitcases stuffed with money, gold ingot hidden in a quaint candle stand, investments made for fugitive friends, stories of lovers, Scotland Yard and the CIA feature in Henry’s mundane life, all thanks to his Aunt Augusta. It is not difficult to fall in love with Aunt Augusta’s vitality, zest for life, love of travel and her eccentricities (and to wish for her too).

Another aunt who comes to the rescue of her niece is Fatima Phuppo, the very confident, sari-clad, bold aunt who takes a stand for Zeba in Shazaf Fatima Haider’s debut novel, How It Happened. She is the perfect example of a modern, successful woman who is not afraid to express her viewpoint even if it entails taking a stand in front of her domineering mother (and Zeba's dadi). Fatima Phuppo is a character we should all aspire to be, whether as an aunt or as a woman.

But there is no lack of aunts who aren’t afraid to express their views. They call at all hours, expect their instructions to be followed to the T and scare the living daylights of their nephews. One such tyrant aunt is no other than Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha. ‘The one who eats broken bottles and turns into a werewolf at the time of the full moon…’, or ‘..the one who kills rats with her teeth and devours her young…’. Of course Aunt Agatha doesn't do any of these things. She may be a bully but she’s no vampire.

Bellatrix Lestrange, on the other hand, is an aunt to put fear in the hearts of all and sundry, what to talk of nephews. Aunt Petunia pales in comparison to her. At least she tried to keep Harry safe (even if it was only out of fear) while Lestrange was ever ready to sacrifice her own nephew if it meant earning brownie points with the Dark Lord. And it’s not just in her evil ways that Bellatrix towers above Aunt Petunia (hint: weird hair-do).

And while on the subject of aunts, I cannot complete my tribute without mentioning the two evil aunts of poor little James; Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. Even though their reign of evil was short (they meet their end quite early), they caused enough misery to force James to move into a giant peach.

Aunts in literature often play a small yet pivotal role in the story line. Sometimes they try to exert their influence on their nephews. Who can forget the stern and haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh who tried to stop Mr. Darcy from marrying Elizabeth (and failed miserably). There are some aunts, though, who can both exercise influence and get their way too. Bertie Wooster, I’m afraid is the poor nephew who, on the bidding of his Aunt Dahlia (yes, he has two aunts) actually stole the silver cow creamer from the antique collection of Sir Watkyn Basset. That he managed to get away with it is another story for another time. 

This woman's day I shall pay a tribute to the crazy, evil, stern, and strange aunts. Of literature, of course!