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On Agony Aunts

First of all let's get it clear what an Agony Aunt is. An Agony Aunt is not a real relative whose life purpose is to make your life an agony. I admit I did think so when I was young and ignorant. I also thought they had coined the expression after my own aunts. But, people, it is not so. My aunts, deserving as they are, remain internationally unappreciated. An Agony Aunt is actually a total stranger, usually an older female person (although you also have Unbearable Uncles these days) that you write your agonies to, either because you want everyone to know you're agonized or out of the conviction that she really might come up with a solution. Or perhaps - and more realistically - because it is a relief to unburden your mind to a total stranger, who is likely to give you an ear where those closer would not or could not, and moreover is not likely to be too judgmental. It's possible too that she may see the situation from a sensible angle that entirely eluded you.

So an Agony Aunt is really like a personalized self-help book - you provide the idea for each chapter.

Originally, I think, the concept started with the village wise woman, whom everyone consulted on the sly. Now that we are a global community with the anonymity of the Internet at our disposal, we make do with the likes of Dear Abby, Dear Margot and, even by courtesy of the Hindustan Times, Dear Raveena.

The last is not to be self-inflicted unless adverse circumstances cut off all escape routes - Dear Raveena hasn't got her stride together yet; she sounds more like the Fount of Ill-advise that threw anonymous comments from the last bench in class than anybody's over-clever aunt. Abby and Margot, however, have been around long enough to develop a trademark style that is entertaining in small doses.

Small doses, I say, because becoming daily aware of the extent of one's ignorance of human nature can be kind of dentful to the ego.

Every time I start having notions of sophisticated grandeur, I read these columns and I'm cut down to my real naïve size. You can't be sophisticated when you're sitting in front of the computer with your mouth wide open.

Truth, as somebody said, is truly stranger than fiction. And none of the fiction I ever read was this truthful. I swear it wasn't. But then I guess I was always the sort that wandered too far into Barbara Cartland country where nobody ever told the ladies nothing interesting.

Of course, by now, I've become quite blasé about run of the mill topics like ' Will my pregnant girlfriend leave me if I'm honest with her and tell her the truth that I'm also the father of the kids her two sisters and four cousins are expecting, besides being really in love with her brother?' and 'I'm in a beautiful, long distance relationship with a wonderful man - we would like to be together, but the only problem is he's got a lifetime to spend in jail - he's in on a murder rap - well, they've accused him of a half a dozen killings, but could only pin one on him - I would like to know how we can get past all this stuff and have a lifetime together - we would so like to make this work - my mother, who's not at all supportive, says why don't you just murder someone too and get yourself in there - do you have any better suggestions?'

But there's a LOT more seriously strange stuff than that in the human arsenal.

And after an onslaught of the big artillery, it can be real annoying to descend back to fluffy stuff like 'My mother-in-law isn't nice to me. When she comes to visit, she gets my husband a gift, she never gets me anything. I hate her. How should I resolve this issue?' or 'My neighbors play the music too loud - and they've got such abysmal taste it makes me puke - HELP me to stop puking and get them to STOP playing such lousy stuff!' or 'My husband won't walk the dog and now we have a large dark shit stain on the white shag carpet. I'm fed up. Should I get a new dog or a new husband?' or 'Jonathan likes me - at least he keeps looking at me all the time - how can I get him to do something more than that?'

And you want to shout, with ALL the ODDITIES that are going on in the world, how on EARTH can you bring yourself to be so ruddy TRIVIAL?

I was going to post that query to Abby or Margot, but I have a feeling I'll probably get the same answer from both - that this is what life is - a chain of meaningless, meaningful, trivial, non-trivial issues that count with some, not at all with others, provide some with entertainment, and some with their livelihood.
By Sonal Panse
Published: 6/7/2006
Bouquets and Brickbats