Swearing can be cathartic and an easy way to articulate frustrations, but it also holds a mirror to a society. Analysis of Cuss words across languages and classes in a patriarchal India and the ever-present subtext of misogyny

By – Yogesh Pawar

Is incest fairly common in India?” asked my friend Yoav Masiach, who is pursuing a doctorate in humanities in Delhi. Shocked at the question, posed nonchalantly over a cup of coffee, I asked what gave him the idea. “That’s all I hear from the way people talk. Nobody seems to talk without liberal doses of beh*****d, maa*****d or even beti***d,” he replied. Straying clear of any socio-cultural context since it would reinforce his belief, I defensively suggested that he not generalise.

Bro talk
This exchange was forgotten until a week ago. It was Sunday. I was in a relatively-empty Mumbai local train, settling down to read at the prized window seat when a duo got in at the next station. More than their cloying perfume and metal-tinted shades, it was their loud conversation and gaalis that seemed to captivate the attention of the other passengers in the compartment. “Beh****d, now that he’s broken with Anushka this Kohli must be back to sleeping with other actresses. All these mother******s are only in for a good time. Nobody thinks of the f*****g country or cricket. Ajit! See my forward on WhatsApp,” one of them called out loudly to his friend who had sat down. Ajit, who laughed at the forward on his phone, replied with more references to genitals of his friend’s female relatives.

Class factor
Suddenly Yoav’s words came back to gnaw at me. Though the defensive Indian within was not willing to concede what the Israeli-German had observed, this conversation among my fellow passengers was clearly rubbing it in. A senior colleague in office, who often uses the Marathi version of mother*****r as a term of endearment, brushed this off as a “nonsensical thing only convent-educated types like you could be bothered about”. Seeing that I was far from convinced, he made it worse, calling it a class thing. “You guys think it’s so cool to swear in English, but anyone who does the same in Hindi or Marathi is looked down upon.”

Sociologist and cultural historian Mukul Joshi feels my colleague could be on to something. “There is a definite socio-economic dynamic to swearing. Perceived offensiveness of coarse language depends entirely on context. What’s unacceptable at a formal dinner could be a casual conversation between friends at a pub. What is okay for the post-dinner adda-baazi with friends at local neighbourhood corner might not work in the confines of some homes while in others, it may be part of everyday lexicon.”

According to him, cues from social media, TV and cinema increase peer pressure to conform by liberally sprinkling expletives in everyday conversations. “It may seem like one hears more and newer swear words but the most frequently-used ones have remained consistent over time. Words such as f**k, s**t, and ass (ass***e and its many variants) continue to remain favourites. Sexual, excretory, descriptively anatomical, religiously blasphemous, bestial, allusions to social deviations and derogations on ethnicity, race, caste or class find generous representation.”

He points out a singular characteristic common to almost all swearing. “Abusive neology seems to have always had a huge problem with the female of the species. Why else would almost the entire repertoire of invectives across languages have not only such a strong masculinist agenda, but misogyny written in bold all over?”

Owning women’s bodies
Women’s studies expert Dr Laxmi Lingam, who heads the Hyderabad campus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, agrees. She feels abuses reflect how society perceives and treats women. “The abuse is in keeping with the exploitative continuum which seeks to control women’s bodies, their sexuality and even their reproduction.”
“Cuss words referring to female genitalia (Maa ki.., behen ki…) are all masculinist threats where a man threatens another with violation of the sexuality of women whose bodies and sexuality they think they own. The man who hits out at another man for giving him these gaalis is often not so angry about the words but about the questions raised on the character and sexuality of the women at home who they treat as property.”

Such sexism, she stresses, often goes beyond the realm of swearing, slipping ever so easily into regular everyday conversational language too. “Apart from languages evolved from traditionally matrilineal societies, like many in south and eastern India, we find languages not very amenable to a gender-neutral style. Look at Hindi or Marathi, or some other North Indian dialects where ascribing a gender to every single object is mandatory. When a child is socialised into growing up with such sharp gender binary constructs, it leaves a mark on her/him in a way that it reflects on both – grown-up behaviour and decisions in life.”

Though language is a vehicle for rapid, flexible symbolic communication, Joshi explains how it can be both, used properly or abused, to create confusion, chaos and ultimately, devastation at the whim of an individual. “That’s where the notion that words which connect one cuss word to another constitutes language. Haven’t you heard about how it’s said you need to learn to swear first to learn a language?”

When women swear
That such abusive language is not restricted to men alone was driven home rudely last Sunday morning at Mumbai’s Goregaon fish market, where fiery fisherwomen supervised an all-male grip of porters carrying basket-loads of catch to the stalls. “Lai maa*****d zhaalet! Paisa paaije pann kaam nako!” (“They’ve become such m***********s. They want money but shirk work!”) screamed Ratna Tandel in an unmistakeable smoker’s hoarse voice. Bidi in one hand and a wad of notes in another, the elderly Koli matriarch didn’t leave any doubts about who was in charge.

Men using misogynistic cuss words are seen as projecting a more masculine image. But why do women swear? Actor-activist Nandita Das, who has reprised several leading women characters in films, calls it tragic. “It is terrible to see women even in matriarchal communities, where wealth and power has been traditionally concentrated in the hands of women, take cues from male role models to assert power.” She explains, “We need to understand that women, just like men, are victims of the same patriarchy which regularly hammers in the image of men as powerful. Socialised into such thinking this since childhood, the girl child begins to mirror the same thought process. Positive reinforcement by society for conforming by doing so only makes it worse.”

Dr Caroline Heldman of Los Angeles’ Occidental College, who was in Mumbai for the ‘Global Symposium On Gender in Media’ organised by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, shook her head in lament. “Whether it’s the fish monger here you mention or Hillary Clinton back home, running for president, women just don’t have it easy.” Echoing Das, this expert on presidency, systems of power, and sexual violence says women will grow out of this only when successive generations provide more and more women role models, free of patriarchal baggage, to emulate. “As of now we are in a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t situation. Women who refuse to swear are seen as being too soft and feminine, whereas if they do, they are ridiculed for not being feminine enough.”

This often translates into women using the same unacceptable sexist abusive language against fellow-women, points out Heldman. “When cuss words like bi**h, c**t or w***e get thrown around, this can conveniently play into the male narrative of women being their own worst enemies, when its actually patriarchal paradigms at play.”

Ugly and barbarian
Joshi points out how what is often laughed off as the essentials of a catfight takes on a really disturbing form in rural India. “I was in Muazamabad, Jaipur, in Rajasthan on a field visit for a research study in November. We met a girl who looked barely 18. When asked if she was studying, she kept quiet but her mother spoke up: ‘Chori ra**d ho gayi hai,’ she told us.”

Since the word ‘ra**d‘ means prostitute even in the local dialect of that region, Joshi began asking village elders for the roots of its usage in this context. “I was shocked to learn that a widow was seen as easy to sexually exploit by all the menfolk not only in the family, but often even the village. That the same menfolk think nothing of shaming a woman they are exploiting, calling her a ra**d is itself quite barbaric. But I’ve still not recovered from the idea that such girls are called by the same abusive epithet by their own mothers!”

Perhaps Yoav is right. We are indeed a sick society.

At least our gaalis suggest so.