A Proper Madam

Personally, I think that titles are a tad silly. That is to say, I’d much prefer that men, women and children who come across me call me by my first name. I don’t need a title. I don’t even expect my children to call me ‘mum’ . (They do, anyway, as a term of endearment, rather than a title).

Only in Asia – where I spent ten years and over half my adult life – do they manage to get my ‘title’ right, anyway. You see, I ceased to be a ‘Miss’ when I ceased to be a teenager and got married. It makes me grit my teeth when people call me ‘miss’. It’s an ugly word, with horrible connotations. If you don’t quite manage to achieve something, you ‘miss’ it. If you’re away from something or someone you love, you ‘miss’ them. If the bus pulls away two seconds before you reach the bus-stop, you ‘miss’ it. ‘Miss’ is all about loss and ‘not-quiteness’.

‘Ms’ is horrendous. To me, it smacks of the 1980s and man-hating women who thought they were liberated and that that liberation could be communicated by their affected use of ‘Ms’ as a prefix to their names. ‘Ms’ is so not for me.

If I am to have a title, I prefer the one that was conferred on me in the East; ‘Madam’. Madam is a great title. It is used by and for women who marry, but continue to use their pre-marriage surname. For example, if a Miss Woo marries a Mr Wong, she is Mrs Wong, but Madam Woo. I like that. Her marital status is conveyed, but she is ‘allowed’ the use of her original surname. Similarily, women who have been divorced are known as ‘Madam’ and whatever their original surname is. A woman with children is always respectfully addressed as ‘Madam’.

I like the term, I like what it applies and – as it happens – it applies to me. I liked being Madam Larkin far more than I ever liked being Miss Larkin, Ms Larkin, Missus Larkin, Missus Jay, or Missus Sridhar. The only other title I enjoyed nearly as much was that of ‘Mama Ishthara’ – as I was called by the vegetable man, the newspaper man and various other wallahs in India after my eldest daughter was born.

The fact of it is, though, that in this part of the world, very few people will ever deign to address me as ‘Madam Larkin’ rather than ‘Hazel’. Musing over this with a friend yesterday, she hit upon the perfect solution: I’ll just have to finish my doctorate. Then I can insist upon being – and expect to be – called ‘Dr Larkin’. 🙂


It might be easier just to re-marry, though.


So here I am, an Irishwoman who was born in Ireland, who grew up in Ireland, who currently resides in Ireland – and I’m homesick.


Most people I say that to have great difficulty understanding it.  I spent ten years  – and the happiest days – of my life in Asia. India and Indonesia are the only places in the world where I have ever felt truly happy and truly at home. At home in myself and my surroundings. There, I have been physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally at my best.  I’ve looked and felt my best. And I’ve felt like I belonged. Everywhere else I’ve ever lived, I’ve felt like I was approximating happiness – striving for it and hoping I’d find it. In India and Indonesia, it didn’t feel hard to find.


A few years ago, I read ‘The Geography of Bliss‘ where home is described as where you want to die. I don’t want to die in Ireland. I don’t want to live here, either. I don’t want to bring my children up here. I want, not necessarily more for my girls, but I do want different for them.


I want to bring them up in a place where I can get the education for them that I want them to have. They won’t get that in Ireland. I want them to be raised in a place where, if they need medical care, they will get it in a timely fashion. They won’t get that in Ireland, either.


I’m not blinkered in my approach to Asia. I know that the places I crave to live are not perfect – but nowhere is! The secret is to find the place you’re happiest and make the most of it. To embrace the joy and do your best to change what chafes. Or, if you can’t change it, to accept it with serenity.


The longer I am away, the more I miss ‘home’.


I have such a list of things that I miss – from the simplest of pleasures to the greatest: I miss sari-shopping; the ritual and the ‘dance’ of the exchange. I miss the varieties of fruit I can’t get here. Where, for example, can one buy custard apples  in Ireland? I miss going shopping for ‘perishables’ on a daily basis.


I miss being able to pop into the Temple. I miss my favourite temple. I miss going for my daily walk and meeting people who go for their daily walk at the same time. I miss having live-in help so I don’t have to do everything for and by myself.


I even miss the things that drove me mad when I lived there – the attitudes and assumptions of a certain ‘type’ of middle-class Indian male. The preoccupation of a certain class of Indian female with one-upping you and your children with tales of the achievements of their children. (That was a game I very quickly learned to opt out of!).


I miss drivers who deliberately try to take you the long-way around, and drivers who agree a fare before you start off and then change it once you reach your destination.


I miss opening the window and hearing a variety of different languages being spoken; Marathi, Hindi, Punjabi, English, Bengali…..all in one moment.


I miss the sense of community – of being welcomed and made to feel like I belonged (conversely, when I returned to Ireland, people were suspicious and judgmental). Homesickness, then, is missing the feeling of being at home.


Homesickness is starting to cry when you’re driving on the motorway because you have a physical pain of longing to be somewhere else.


Homesickness is when  – with no warning –  tears splash down your face in the supermarket because this is not how you want to be buying vegetables; wrapped in clingfilm and sitting on little trays. This is not how I want my children to think that vegetables should be bought. I want to teach them to engage with produce; how it should look, smell and feel when it’s ripe.


Homesickness is dithering over whether or not to buy a jasmine plant: Part of me wants to because, if I do, then I’ll have the creamy scent I love around me all day. Part of me doesn’t because then I’d miss India even more. I’d miss handing 10 rupees to a mogra-wallah in the middle of busy traffic in exchange for jasmine flowers, strung together with thread and wrapped in sheets of newspaper. These, we’d take home and keep in the fridge, plaiting them through our hair the following morning, and using on our alter as offerings.


Homesickness is realising that you’d rather be dying there than living here.