The first time someone called me "Uncle" was when I was 17. I didn't shave much then. Once in two weeks was a big thing I guess. (I was probably of the opinion that God gave me facial hair for a reason).
I was at my aunt's place, which is a ground floor apartment, and the colony kids playing outside would sometimes come over to her place and ask for a glass of water. This particular day, I opened the door. The kid - not more than seven years old - took one look at me and said "Uncle, pani chahiye." (Uncle I want water).
Now even at 5'10" and the moustache and some semblance of an unshaved beard, I hardly looked like an "Uncle".
With him was a kid who must have been about four. I looked straight into the older kid's eyes and kept staring for what must have seemed to him like an eternity.
Slowly, I said, "Kya bola?" (What did you say?)
He was obviously scared, but had no idea what he was supposed to be scared about.
There was a pause of about ten seconds, and he started backing away. "Kuchh nahin" (Nothing), he said, and started going back to look for other oases.
If he ran away, he'd never know what he had done wrong. So, I stopped him. "Wait," I said.
He stopped, and looked at me trying to avoid my eyes.
"You want water?" I asked.
The kid nodded.
All this time, the little one had no idea what was going on, and I was avoiding him completely. He was too short anyway, and I would have to crane my neck too much to look at him.
So I went to the kitchen and got two glasses of water.
As I handed the glasses to both of them, I turned my attention to the older one again.
"What did you call me?" I asked.
Slowly, as if he wasn't sure it was the right answer, he replied, "Uncle?"
I was seventeen! These kids called my cousins, who were three and five years older than me, "Bhaiyya"! (Literally meaning "Older brother" but used to refer to any male who's much older and so definitely not a "friend", but not old enough to be an "Uncle")
"Main Uncle lagta hoon?" (Do I look like an Uncle?)
He started nodding yes, but then mid-nod he probably realized that that might be the wrong answer, and so he stopped. And kept looking at me - as if trying to make up his mind.
"Main Uncle lagta hoon?" I asked again.
The glass of water in his hands was untouched. But the little one had drained his and was trying to give the empty glass back to me. He was pointing into the glass in such a way to indicate that he wanted more. Not much of a speaker, that one. Wonder what he'd have called me.
I went back into the kitchen and got some more water. When I returned, the older kid had drained his glass too.
"Aur chahiye?" (Want more?) I asked him.
This time his answer was a definite "No" nod.
"Ok", I said, "lekin yeh batao, kya main Uncle lagta hoon?" (but tell me, do I look like an Uncle?)
I could almost see his face say "Damn!"
The part of him that believed in the "survival of the ones with best judgement" theory, tried to nod "No". But the other part of him that believed in scientific and objective analysis of available data before reaching a conclusion, tried not to nod at all. Which finally ended in a slight shake of the head that was an answer without any specific meaning.
"Uncle lagta hoon kya?" (Do I look like an Uncle?) I repeated.
The little one was trying to reach up and return the glass to me. Having achieved his objective, he started walking away, completely unaware of the gravity of the situation.
The older one tried to follow him too, but I wasn't having any of that.
"Thehro," (Wait) I said.
The kid looked at me again, trying to come to terms with the fact that getting out of this didn't seem easy.
"Main Uncle nahin hoon," (I'm not an Uncle) I said simply.
The kid apparently didn't know what to make of that statement. The look on his face was similar to what the expression on a mathematician's face might be if someone said "Two and two is not four."
"Main Uncle nahin hoon," I repeated.
This still failed to evoke any response.
"Call me Bhaiyya," I said.
At this, the kid's eyes opened wide, as he realized what the point of the entire conversation (or monologue) had been. He lips widened just a bit to show the beginnings of a smile and then, knowing that I was only a Bhaiyya, he just ran away.
I stood there for a few seconds looking at the empty spot where the kid had been, and began turning away to close the door when the smaller one turned up once more. "Thank you, uncle" he said, and disappeared again.
And at twenty-three, women used to tell me that I was too young. Is there any justice in this world?