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


Nikhil Talgeri said...

Loved the blog post. That being said, you would be surprised if you searched on "term of abuse" in John T Platt's dictionary. You will come across easily 6-7 profanities that are still in use today in popular lingo. Interesting blog!

Hades said...

Thanks for the liking, Nikhil.

Did look up "terms of abuse". Quite a few in use but quite a few have gone out as well, no? Or maybe I have an urban bias.

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Mukesh said...

Didn't the swear word 'ch*tiya' actually referred to someone who keeps hiding there, is so weak he can't get over enjoying (?) it. Sorry for the gross comment, but this is a serious question :)