Home / Leisure / The complex origins of our favourite ‘gaalis’

Indians share their forms of abuse. Many languages, same gaalis: unity in diversity. But why is this so? Writer Sudhir Kakar observed that Indian abuse was different from European. He says they use scatological words (which means related to faeces), while we like to allege incest. Is that true? Let us examine the matter.

Copulation with the other’s sister is the most common abuse in India though it doesn’t have a parallel in the West. The word shares its structure with our other popular abuse where sister is replaced with mother.

What are the origins of these words?

A clue is available to us, and that is the word madar. It is “mother" only in Farsi.

So speakers of Farsi brought it: Mughals. However, the word for copulation attached to it is not Farsi. It is Hindustani and possibly originates from the word for crevice or aperture, chhed. The word used for sister is behen, which is Hindustani.

Our little investigation has revealed three things: First, both words are recent (perhaps 1650-1700). Second, the abusive word for mother came before the one for sister (we shall see why). And third, since Farsi was the language of a small Mughal aristocracy and bureaucracy, that the word’s origins are not popular.

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The words also carry different weights, and madar is an escalation.

The Indian word for bastard, harami, is actually Arabic. We have no word for it in Indian languages because of the same troublesome allusion to mother’s sexual habits. All this indicates, contrary to Kakar’s view, that Indians are not comfortable expressing abuse that has to do with maternal incest.

If these words are recent, what are the classical Indian phrases of abuse? It is difficult to say because Smritic literature does not appear to have any sexually abusive words delivered in first person. Our ancestors also viewed abuse itself differently. We know this because while the modern gaali is feminine in gender, classical upshabd is not.

Perhaps men did not abuse one another during the Heroic age. There is not a word of sexual abuse in Iliad (though Achilles does call Agamemnon kunopa: dog-face). Presumably this is because they could settle it with swords.

Even when there was provocation, they were quite restrained. Bhim breaks the rules of combat and attacks Duryodhan’s thighs, crippling him. But Duryodhan does not abuse him. His angry words are about injustice and fate, though we might have reacted differently.

The first Indian autobiography was Ardhakathanak (Half a Story), written by Agra’s Jain trader Banarasidas in 1641. Unfortunately, the book’s language is quite chaste and the only term of disapproval (which Banarasidas uses on himself) is the beautiful word aasikbaaj (wanton lover), which is again imported, through the Arabic root ishq.

What is the place of abuse in culture?

All abuse attempts to dishonour. Abuse is a male weapon, because honour is a male virtue. Most words of abuse are coined to hurt men. A woman is attacked through allegations of promiscuity, not incest. A woman using sexual abuse is not convincing and her words do not sting, because she cannot penetrate.

The Indian man expresses his intention to penetrate another male to show dominance. This is not found in European abuse, because homosexuality is abhorrent in the popular view.

It is expressed by urban Indians in the pidgin English we all speak as “I’ll take your ass". This is translated from the Hindi/Gujarati original that communicates buggery more violently, through the use of “maar".

This expression of penetration is found in animals, and male elephants mount the dead bull’s carcass to project dominance over him and the cows.

The penetrated man loses honour, though ancient Greeks appear to have been rampant homosexuals. In Xenophon’s book The Dinner Party, Socrates advises Autolycus to choose his lover wisely, because every man around will want to bed him. Scholar Kenneth Dover conjectured that Greek homosexuality wasn’t penetrative but intercrural, which means between the thighs.

He concluded this after examining Greek pottery and noticing that male lovers always faced each other. Even so, the presence of a dominant male reduces the other man.

Now let us look at the strange Indian words of abuse that are actually biological statements of fact. For instance, the word that director Dada Kondke alluded to with the pun Boss DK. It means of-a-vagina. But vaginal birth is common to all humans. Why should it be pointed out and why should someone be dishonoured by it?

Because of shame. Writer Upamanyu Chatterjee referred to this in English, August, observing that Indian men are hesitant to introduce a woman as “my wife" because it revealed their copulation.

Kondke’s word has an alternative meaning: he-who-has-a-vagina. But I do not think that is the true meaning. The other word of the same meaning is prefixed with the “ch" root we have seen earlier.

Something found in European abuse and not in ours is swearing. We have no hell, and damnation is expressed through the borrowed Arabic word jahannum. Indians are inherently respectful of religion, and we notice the absence of common abuse by faith. This is even though there are aspects open to attack, for instance the circumcised Muslim. Bal Thackeray’s Saamna is fond of using the word “landya", which refers to this, but it isn’t commonly used by Marathis.

Like many trading societies, Surtis use abuse almost as punctuation. For years after other cities got one, Surat had no local All India Radio station. Surtis were convinced this was because the government was terrified one of them would go on air and unwittingly let rip. They agreed with the government’s wisdom, and when two men of Surat have a conversation, every fourth word refers to the other’s deviant sexual habits and makes inquiries about his parentage. Traders do not put a premium on honour, and abuse is less effective on them than, for instance, on peasants or warriors.

Those who think Parsis sophisticated will be appalled to hear them speak in Gujarati, because of their gutter tongue, which is Surti and peppered with BC and MC.

All humans are repelled by incest. Oedipus has got a bad name because of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Sophocles’ great set of plays on Oedipus is one of the most moving pieces of Greek literature. Oedipus does not know that the woman he is bedding is his mother (or that the arrogant stranger he killed was his father). His anguish when he does find out is such that he tears his eyes out, and his mother/wife hangs herself. So it is quite unfair to call subliminal attraction towards one’s mother an Oedipus Complex.

Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.

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