Saturday, November 16, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Agony Aunts: New-age confessionals

Agony Aunts are, undoubtedly, capable of captivating the interest of readers and probably successful in contributing their mite to the readability and saleability of a magazine. But do they actually provide an antidote to the emotional, mental and physical ailments of the respondents, asks Gitanjali Sharma

FLIPPING through a womenís magazine, your gaze rests on the attractive Agony Aunt. You get drawn to the first query, screaming in bold across the page. You are curious to read the accompanying response. Then you are unable to resist scanning the second enquiry. Before you realise it and between a few raised eyebrows and silent sighs of "there are all kinds that make up this world" you have read the entire column, constituting of five questions and answers.


Have you ever asked yourself what glued you to the page? What arrested your attention that you read from word to word? What made you devote whole of five minutes to the problems of others when while leafing through the glossy monthly you were not spending more than five seconds on a page?

You probably have a number of reasons to offer: you maybe relating to that shy 17-year-old girl who finds it difficult to befriend boys or empathising with that bored housewife whose interest in her husband is waning or connecting with that complexed teenager who feels that her confidence level is inversely related to her weight gain.

But besides these obvious interests, donít you think there is something more that pulls us to these personal posers, some of which are barely short of pornography? They are so private in nature that you almost feel you are prying on othersí lives. By the way, have you ever looked up guiltily when somebody found you reading the column? If yes, that should say it all.

That the fare dished out by Agony Aunts tickles our voyeuristic tendencies could be hard to deny. The quirky affairs narrated maybe indigestible and revolting for some but then many eagerly lap them up, taking pleasure in reading about promiscuity and promiscuity at its perverted best. It is easy to camouflage your voyeuristic delight under the clicking of your tongue in moral reproof and expressions of bewilderment at what society is up to, even as you go through the scandalous liaisons, steamy confessions, freaky goof-ups and other unprintable stuff. Surely it is not against your wishes that you get tempted to read about the 27-year-old who seeks a solution for remaining obsessed with her fiancťís former girlfriend or the broken 25-year-old who is reaching out because her boyfriend of several years has dumped her for being frigid.

The near-total disappearance of the salacious neighbourhood gossip could also account for the success of these voice-your-affairs columns. In metros and other big cities, from where most of the queries generate, you no longer have those next-door mausis or chachis who would update you on the latest elopement, affair or husband-wife tiff doing the rounds. Moreover, time is at a premium, so you turn to your always-aware-of-whatís-cooking Aunt to have your fill.

The popularity of the Agony Aunt column, presenting a heady mix of sympathetic, sensible, saucy and scathing suggestions, makes it a permanent feature in most family magazines. Even the Net is inundated with such helplines, which not only offer quick fixes but also specialised service with slots reading "no girlfriend", "no boyfriend", "drugs", "unsure", "weight", "sexual", "marital", "parental", "legal" and so on. In fact, think of the unthinkable and it is there. A word of caution here: guard yourself against the un-Indian advice handed out by non-Indian sites. But on second thoughts, go ahead and explore, for as said earlier there is also nothing un-Indian and conservative about the queries, many of which may have Freud turning in his grave.

Agony Aunts are, undoubtedly, capable of captivating the interest of readers and probably successful in contributing their mite to the readability and saleability of a magazine but do they actually provide an antidote to the emotional, mental and physical ailments of the respondents? Are these Aunts, most of whom are celebrated actresses or known personalities sporting a calm and comforting look, able to show the correct course to the confused and the clueless? Can the gravity of a grievance be understood and the case solved and dismissed in a couple of sentences?

Nay, itís all hogwash, scream the antagonists. The column is made juicy and spicy simply to titillate the readers, is their argument. They back their case by claiming that most of the answers are hackneyed, too obvious to showcase the worth of the worthy celebrity donning the garb of an Agony Aunt. Their contention is: now does it require a lot of wit to inform a girl whose parents are against her marriage to a guy from another caste that she should rope in a relative to plead her case?

Moreover, most counsel bestowed is so proper and practical that it is hard to practise and doesnít go down well with persons who are already victims of impractical reasoning.

Suckers of such columns, however, wouldnít want anything adverse said about their Aunts. They come well armed with a list of advantages while arguing in favour of advice seekers and givers. Avid readers of the agonising problems of others, they admit that though most of the times the answers doled out are likely to be options that the asker may have already debated upon yet a second opinion is always welcome. It is appreciated as long as, critics here canít resist chipping in, the second opinion doesnít add to the confusion and mislead you further.

Undeterred, the suckers carry on: you may get to view a perspective you were blind to. At times, so seeped are you in misery that you are incapable of thinking coherently and finding a solution to your crisis. A kind word, a bit of advice delivered in an understanding tone may save you from a distressing situation. The critics react yet again, pointing out that nobody can know you better than yourself. And if you have those many wits about you to approach an Agony Aunt and deliver her a coherently framed question then surely you are capable of thinking logically about your lifeís problems.

Besides reaching out for guidance, the other motive behind mailing your worries maybe the need to unburden bottled-up feelings, dark secrets and disturbing complexes, which even your closest pal hasnít a whiff of.

By allowing all to read your unholy admissions, which you project like confessional statements, you hope to lessen the guilt and pricking of whatever conscience that exists.

A married woman guilty of a one-night stand with her colleague, while expressing her feelings of shame and remorse, hopes to get absolved of her sin by the generous Agony Aunt. And such seekers usually do not go away dejected and disappointed. For routinely, the standard advice for strayers is: "It happened. You cannot undo it. So, donít blame anyone. Was your straying a sign of some trouble at home? If yes, why treat the symptom, go for the main cause." Let off easily, isnít it? Yeah, but thatís the whole idea. Agony Aunts click and are your favourites for the reason that they understand you and your idiosyncrasies. They donít torment you with platitudes and sermons. The whole emphasis remains on moving on and leaving the past where it belongs.

Another plus point offered by such a forum is that your identity remains protected. You do not get marked for your misdemeanours. You can candidly and explicitly confess your problems without any embarrassment or fear of any distasteful repercussions. The protection of your confidentiality is absolutely foolproof here ó you canít make much of the name X Y Z, can you? With others like friends, real aunts, counsellors, psychologists, who may double up as your agony aunts, you can never be sure that they will refuse to tell on you. With this advantage of anonymity, you can unabashedly ask all that you wish to, and which otherwise you might not if you were sitting across the table with a probing counsellor.

Critics, however, cannot refrain from asserting that questioners, under the cover of invisibility, have been getting away with the murder of morality. Licentious talk is indulged in; lewd details are given under the shield of a faceless identity.

Suckers make an attempt to have the last word: the sharing of your experiences and problems can benefit those sailing in the same boat. It can create a bonding that could result in the formation of support groups. The critics donít give up trying to be one up on them. They say that socially unacceptable behaviour gains acceptance at such fora, and it can prove dangerous to community health over the long term.

You give your verdict: the column, undoubtedly, serves as a social dustbin that can be useful and maybe is even essential for the well-being of society as long as no stench emanates from it and it pollutes no minds.

Aunts speak

My friendís boyfriend seems to have a crush on me and she hates me for it. I only met him through her and while I have always been friendly (and, yes, perhaps a little bit flirty) with him, I have certainly never intended for him to be interested in me. However, I think that now he is. Last night we went to the pub and he spent all evening chatting me up with her sitting on the other side of him! She is angry with him but has put most of the blame on me and wonít even speak to me. What shall I do?

Auntie Selena says: I wouldnít waste any more time on either of them, dear. They sound simply too tedious.

Uncle Dean says: Itís always worse when thereís no reason for something. So, to solve that, itís easy ó have an affair with him. Then you can all rest in good conscience that sheís got reason to be mad with you.

Jesus Christ says: Sounds like theyíre both the ones in the wrong, not you. Iíd probably leave them to donít need friends like these. But thereís something else there that your did not mention...why did he end up interested in you? If you made it clear from the start that you were not even going to think in flirting or doing whatever comes next with him, then it wouldnít have ended up this way, would it? Find yourself a nice bloke and stop fantasising about other peopleís partners. Unless you really enjoy that kind of thing.

Queentut says: Ten lashes for the lover scorned. Ancient Eyptians made mounds in the desert (called the pyramids) in times of need. Make a mound from twigs and leaves in your garden, line a plumb line with the stars of Etragina and speak of your problems. Tomorrow he will have eyes for you only.

Manny says: Insist she speak to you and have a full and frank discussion about the situation. Tell her that you are not interested in her boyfriend and whatever else it takes to get her to see that you are not the problem here.

(These solutions offered on a website come with a warning that they should not be taken seriously)