Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lessons from Allahabad

The vocabulary of a language can, sometimes, tell us a lot about the people that use it and the circumstances they live in. The most famous case in point of course being the (incorrect) belief that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. In spite of the untruth of this particular example, the existence of a particular word in a language can sometimes hint at the importance (or even existence) of the idea it describes.  Thus, it’s not surprising that (spoken) Hindi uses English loan words to describe modern technology such as telephones or TVs. Or even Western concepts such as “secularism”.

This, though, is a two way street. There are concepts that Hindi is much more adept at describing than English. For example the “process of stealing electricity from the main grid by connecting a wire to it” takes up a lot a lot of breathe to express in Angrezi. Allahabadi Hindi, though, has one sweet and simple word for it: ‘katiyaa’ (cut-ee-aa). And from my experience (of admittedly only a day in Allahabad), the word, unlike say, 'theft', carries no negative connotations. To 'katiyaa' in Allahabad is normal. It's what people like us do.

In a city where there is hardly any regular power, power theft is widely practiced and, for lack of an option, condoned, I would have expected nothing less.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sweden Threatens to Strip Sen of Nobel for not Supporting Swedish Football Team

In a surprising move, the Nobel committee has taken offense with a 7-year old interview of Sen where he professes support for the Brazilian football team in the 2006 World Cup and has threatened to strip him of his Nobel Prize.

In a light hearted bit towards the end of the interview, Sen said he was an avid football watcher and liked the way Brazil played. To this, the Nobel committee, irritated at the Swedish team not getting his vote, threatened to take the prestigious prize away from him. The Nobel committee is based out of Sweden.

“Is Sen even a footballer? The Nobel committee must strip him of the prize,” tweeted a prominent member and spokesperson of the committee. “Don’t peddle your unsolicited comments on football. We know you as an economist who has sold himself to Brazil.”

Once the news got around of Sen’s opinion, Swedes took to social media to express their rage at this betrayal. Sven Ravelli tweeted: “It’s best if Sen sticks to Economics and keeps his opinions about football to himself.”

Sen himself has expressed surprise at the controversy. “As a lover of football, I should be able to support any team I want,” he naively said.

The storm though refuses to die down. Incensed by all of this, some Swedish fans have taken to distributing images of Sen and his family, scantily clad doing the Samba. “This is the just desserts Sen gets for having the temerity to expressing his opinion,” noted a Swedish fan.

Sen detractors have distributed this morphed photo of Sen (second woman from right) doing the Samba in order to embarrass him

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Colourless Liquid Falling from Sky Surprises City Officials

The city of Bombay has been caught unawares by an unprecedented phenomenon. Since yesterday, the metropolis has been deluged by a colourless liquid falling from the sky. Drops of the liquid were first reported at 3 AM yesterday and were still falling at the time of writing. Such is the volume of the liquid that roads and rail tracks have been submerged, throwing normal life in the city out of gear. Alarmingly, this liquid has a corroding action on roads built using cheap material. As a result, the city has seen road quality deteriorate precipitously as large potholes have surfaced throughout the city.

Caught unawares by this extraordinary phenomenon, the authorities remained silent for most of yesterday. Sources tell us that the liquid was first sent for testing by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and was found to be Dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO). A statement was released later on that the liquid was mostly harmless to humans, however studies were still ongoing.

Scientists say that DHMO has been known to act as an aphrodisiac for humans. Caught in yesterday's deluge, seen here are two unfortunate victims of DHMO, satisfying their carnal desires on top of a cart.

This did little to help the city though as panic stricken residents, alarmed by this “rain” of DHMO fled for home, throwing the city into chaos.

The BMC requested for calm and advised citizens to stay at home. “This is an unprecedented situation and we appeal to the people of Bombay to help us understand what the fuck is going on,” said the Mayor whose name no one seemed to know. “We are doing our best against the DHMO deluge, but given that this is the first time it’s ever happened, our hands are tied. We assure the city that we are doing all we can to battle this and promise to prepare the city in case it ever occurs again.”

Friday, July 19, 2013

Thoughts on Hindi Profanity

(First Published on NewsYaps)

A furore has been raised in India over Modi’s puppy remark . When asked whether he regretted the 2002 riots he replied, saying, “any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy (kutte ka bachchaa was the exact term used) comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not?”.

Without going into the merits of the controversy, it is interesting to know that most if not all Westerners would be completely befuddled by all of this. This is because the word ‘dog’ hardly has the same negative connotations in English as it does in Hindi. Calling someone a puppy means, if anything, something mildly positive in the language. In Hindi, though, kutte ka bachchaa turns out to be a rather offensive phrase.

Given how most readers of this article would be bilingual in English and an Indian language, it's interesting to see just how different the principles of profanity are in these two linguistic cultures.

English swear words can, by and large, be grouped into three categories: body parts (male and female), intercourse (the F-word and some others) and bodily functions (the most obvious being "shit"). Once upon a time, there would have been a fourth category: religious. Till some time back, a curse like “damn” (wishing damnation upon a person) was quite an escalation when it came to verbal violence. Most famously the 1939 film Gone with the Wind used the line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" and created quite a bit of controversy. Today, however, these words would act as mere interjections and can be used in most setting without any danger of appearing too rude.

Most subcontinental languages such as Hindi have a rather different set of, er, principles. They can broadly be divided into religious/caste, body parts, incest and honour.

The first silo, religious/caste swearing in Hindi draws from two main sources: Hinduism and Islam. Ironically for Modi, the fact that kutta is a swear word in Hindi is, in all probability, drawn from the Islamic contempt for the animal. Similarly, pig/suar (much like kutte also used commonly as a paternal slur as most famously illustrated by Mr Gabbar Singh in Sholay) is also used as another swear word which draws upon the intense Islamic dislike for the animal. The other major source of religious swearing is the caste system. Hindi has a large number of swear words which are actually references to caste. Chamaar, a very common swear word in Delhi is actually the name of a Dalit caste whose most famous member is Mayawati. Similarly for Kanjar, a caste which once upon a time practised hereditary prostitution. The word Kaminaa comes from a Persian word Kamin which means “low” (neech) and is equivalent to calling someone “low-caste”. So the next time, you feel all smug about Indians leaving caste behind, just listen around. These “innocuous” gaalis show just how embedded caste is, even in upper-class Indian society.

Body parts is the only category in common with English and refers to mostly the genitals, male as well as female.

By far the most macabre and unique part of the Hindi swearing system is its emphasis on incest. Hindi’s most obscene gaali refers to intercourse with one's mother, the number two being, somewhat unimaginatively, intercourse with one’s sister. In what is most interesting, the Hindi gaali for intercourse with your mother actually uses the Persian word for mother. I guess actually using the common Hindi word 'maan' was just too close to the bone. So the actual gaali is a half-bowdlerised, somewhat more palatable version which uses the word, maadar instead. It’s like the speaker is saying, “I'm going to abuse the shit out of your venerable maataaji but maybe if I do it in flowery Persian, you won't mind all that much, sir now will you?”.

The biggest category of Hindi gaalis, though, refers to various notions of honour prevalent throughout the subcontinent. Honour encompasses a very wide field. Most of it though has to do with sexual dominance over another presumably weaker rival. Hence, in Hindi, a boast by the male to penetrate other male is a common gaali. As is, of course, the more heterosexual “I will f*ck you”. Oddly enough, Hindi has no equivalent to English’s most common swear word, ‘f*cuker’ which, if you come to think of it, isn’t all that odd in the first place. We all are, or at least aspire to be (looking at you Engineers), ‘f*cukers’. Why it’s a term of ridicule is beyond me.

As this example shows, India, with its casual acceptance of homosexuality (as opposed to the West) is (almost) an equal opportunity offender when it comes to sexual gaalis. That, of course, doesn’t means that we aren’t completely messed up as well. Sex in India is largely treated as a battlefield of honour. And all sexual relationships involve the bartering of honour, wherein one person loses it and the other gains it, no matter how “legitimate” the sexual relationship. Take the word saalaa for example. It's probably Hindi's most popular gaali and is only mildly offensive. It literally means one's wife's brother. By calling someone a saalaa you are in short proclaiming that you dominate him because you have bedded his sister. Similar messed up connotations exists for sasur (father-in-law) whereby you have now bedded his daughter. This might seem odd to most people reading this now but these swear words serve to illustrate a deep-seated Indian mindset about the shame embedded in just about any sexual relationship. Recall any Indian wedding and the impossible cockiness displayed by the ladkewalon. It flows from the same mindset as a saalaa. The marriage is a sexual exchange where the men are supposedly superior to the women.  Tehmina Durrani’s novel “Blasphemy” talks about a Sindhi custom which takes this mindset to its (logical?) extreme. A certain community in Sindh actually goes so far as to mourn the marriage of a daughter. "Why?" asks a character in the novel. "Because it means allowing a man to have intercourse with her" is the answer. Much like Dworkin and her book Intercourse, subcontinental societies take an extreme, male supremist view of all sex (“legitimate” or not) as a form of “domination”. And this view is so widespread that a swear word like saalaa is considered mild.

Grim, right? Remember all of this the next time someone calls you a saalaa in jest. You just hit back with antediluvian, male-chauvinist, sex-hating person. That’ll show him.

P.S: A short note on Hindi’s second most popular gaali after saalaa: ch*tiyaa. It literally means one born of a vagina which basically describes (almost) all of humanity. Why it’s a term of abuse is beyond me. This swear word might be of recent provenance given that it finds no place in John T. Platts famous Hindi-Urdu dictionary complied in 1884. Fans of the song Bhaag DK Bose will be pleased to know that Platts does take cognisance of this term which when affixed with the possessive ka gives rise to a synonym of ch*tiya.

Further Reading:
An earlier post on Hindi swearing: Normal Born Brother-in-Law
An interesting podcast on the history of swearing in the Western world