25 October 2008

In Defence of Sidney

To Maggie, this in spite of myself!
To Samarth Chandola, the only one who believes the author is still alive!
“I just want to make you guys aware of other interpretations.”

Interpretations. Interrogations. Connotations. Analyses. Criticism.


Why? Why do we always have to analyse, critically comment on, discuss with reference to the text every single piece of literature that we come across? Why! Why! WHY!

OK, I know I’m being too passionate, too warm for the cold, rational, balanced critic that I’m supposed to be, that of all of us Literature students are supposed to be. I know I’m letting my emotions unhinge me, that they’re making me narrow minded and with every passing alphabet clouding my judgement. I know too that you, you being the immaculate critic, just smirked maliciously at this and possibly dismissed this as the ravings of a completely deranged lunatic. Yeah, yeah, I know that.

But still, why?

Why can’t we for once let a work, or ‘text’ as we prefer calling it, be? Is it that big a crime to take things at their face value, to dismiss a complex derivation when a simple when will suffice?

“No, that cannot be!”, our critics will cry. It is the critic’s job to dispel illusions, to push back the boundaries of darkness and illumine reality with all its complex paraphernalia of layers and overtones and so on. To accept things as they are will be to give in to mortal temptation- that we cannot do; nay, we must constantly rise above and have nothing but the bare, stark, cold truth.

And when it comes to something as artificial as romantic sonnets, we certainly cannot do with anything else.

The way we critics rave and rant-hold your horses critical reader!-about interpretations and connotations and what not is enough to make me feel sorry for Sir Philip Sidney, the English Petrarch. Poor fellow painstakingly composed a series of 108 sonnets and 11 songs and what does posterity judge him as?

A clever versifier, a shrewd manipulator, an ambitious aristocrat...

Anything but a sorrowful lover.

History tells us that Sidney started writing Astrophil and Stella in 1581, after the marriage of his childhood love Penelope Devereux-whose father’s last wish too had been for her to marry him-to Lord Rich. Is it so very unnatural for a man to lament the marriage of his life-long beloved to another? For him to escape thus into fantasy with his grief and there attempt, as best as he could have, to express all the ramifications of his love in words? Consider the following…
“The first that straight my fancy’s error brings
Unto my mind is Stella’s image, wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught
That she, methinks, not only shines but sings.”

And these…
“True that on earth we are but pilgrims made
And should in soul up to our country move
True, yet true that I must Stella love.”
And these...
“Peace, foolish wit! with wit my wit is marr’d
Thus write I while I doubt to write and wreak
My harms in ink’s poor loss. Perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers that so confuse so my mind.”
And yet these…
“Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lover’s ruin some thrice-sad tragedy
I am not I: pity the tale of me.”
And finally these…
“I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.”
Are these not brilliant professions of love, of devotion, even idolatry? Are not the lover’s pangs, his great sorrows and dilemmas patnelty visible? Is this not beautiful, uplifting, noble?

No, it’s all make believe, unreal, with dark, covert purposes. Sidney’s not really in love you know, he’s just pretending. He’s this cunning, foxy player of words, he’s lulling his readers into this fell trap of believing he’s madly and desperately in love- he’s actually projecting his own grand ambitions, he wants to impress everybody but Stella. Stella’s not even a real person- she’s many people: Penelope, the Queen, some unnamed Lady of the Court…in fact, she doesn’t even matter in these sonnets: she’s really more, much much more of an afterthought than a significant presence in the sonnets.

Bosh! If this be the truth, then I would rather believe in lies!

Yet, supposing all this were true, that Stella was just a medium through which Sidney-Astrophil was articulating his desires, his ruthless ambitions, supposing all of this was true, even then I would believe in what the critic decries as base illusions. Do not all of us need some sort of opium, some illusion, maya, to keep on living? Is truth really all that desirable? What would you rather have, a beautiful lie or a tormenting truth? Beauty, it must be remembered, lies in the yes of the beer-holder: not, certainly not, in the eyes of the cold, rational critic.

In any case, there is not value of Sidney’s sonnets today, some 500 years or so after they were composed. Yes, yes, one can glean out lots of socio-cultural stuff out of them, establish the position of women, find out the attitudes towards gender and ascertain a zillion such like fantastic things of topical interest from them. All that can be done, is done- it is the natural province of the insufferable busybody of a critic. To the normal student, the real charm, if any, of a work as artificial as romantic sonnets lies in its aesthetics, in the oh-so-romantic sensibilities which it expresses. Who has not dreamt of the knight in shinning armour, of the damsel in distress? Sure, patriarchy is bad and oppressive, but is one justified for being so when the same is so universal? Is one justified in condemning Sidney for being so when it was the only mode of being in existence?

As good old Mr Kitto said, to understand is not necessarily to forgive completely. Yet, one can still try and understand…

7 October 2008

Teri Ma Ki: An Analysis of Common Swear Words

To You Know Who and would-be Bhaybheet’s father, thanking them for their valuable inputs.
To TVS R S: thanks for the encouragement!

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘abuse’ as “insulting and offensive language” and the phrase ‘swear word’ as a “an offensive or obscene word”. In common parlance, a swear word is a ‘dirty word’, something odious and vulgar used to express anger, astonishment, shock and other such like extreme emotions; a medium of not just expression but also of pleasure, if on may say so, sadistic pleasure- of hurting people, of taking out one’s frustration by attempting to degrade somebody/thing else in a given socio-cultural context. It is a word which essentially evokes stock images and ideas: indeed, it’s very strength lies in hitting the receiver with very powerful sexual taboos and bamboozling him/her with great, onerous challenges, things in essence the cornerstones of society. A swear word is, therefore, extremely subversive, a sign of marked rebellion against established social norms and customs.

This paper will critically analyse five genres of the commonest Hindustani swear words in context of the socio-cultural make-up of Indian society so as to establish the same as a genre which subverts by direct attack at the fundamental constructs in a society as well as a set which reflects attitudes towards numerous contentious issues of topical interest. To do so, it will begin by ascertaining the nature of Indian society and then move on to discuss in separate sections the import of each of these terms with reference to their etymologies. It will conclude with an overview of the arguments so presented.


Indian society, to an overwhelmingly large extent, is patriarchal. Since the writer happens to be Indian and the readers, if any, too will be Indians, or at least those well acquainted with India, it will be not only redundant but also extremely tedious if a comprehensive description of Indian society is brought in this work. Yet, for purposes of this study, it will be useful if some salient features of this patriarchy were discussed briefly.

The father is undoubtedly the most important member of the family. The sole breadwinner, he is the solid bedrock upon which the entire family is built. The family, each of its members, derives expression, identity, from the central father figure: without him the whole structure breaks down, dissolves to nothingness. The honour of the family is reflected in his person and conduct; further, as the only link between the microcosmic family and the macrocosmic society, his role as the ‘protector’ is of prime importance.

The notion of honour, of course, is central to this analysis. The Hindustani word izzat, which is translated as “honour, respect or dignity” and hence means more or less the same thing, has various connotations. A man’s, and by extension his family’s, izzat is determined by numerous factors, most significantly by the izzat, or honour, of the women under his care. It is his sacred duty to protect and uphold the izzat of his womenfolk and it is his performance in this field, as a protector of his women from the sexual dangers outside the safety of the home in the wide world of men, which ultimately decides his mardangi, manliness, and establishes him as a mard, man, in society.

Hence, though ambiguous, honour, specifically men’s honour, can, and usually is, defined through the aforementioned parameters of chastity and conjugal faithfulness.


Let us now turn to our case studies. We will begin with one of the most elementary of all Hindustani swear words (hereafter referred to as gaalis)- haramzada.

This is a composite made of haram and zada; while the meaning of the latter is not very clear, some taking it as signalling agreement, the former refers undoubtedly to forbidden, sinful activities- things not exactly permissible in the normal framework of society. This comprises of a lot of things, including extramarital sex: the same is apparent from the connotations which the word harem brings to the mind. In fact, the word harmazada itself means progeny of an illicit sexual relationship, someone who in English is known as a bastard. To call somebody a haramzada is to question his/her (the female equivalent is haramzadi) parentage: specifically, to question the identity of his/her father. As children derive expression and identity from the father, this gaali, by effectively de-stabilising and jeopardising the same, seeks to establish a person as a social outcast, one who stands out as an ‘other’ in hordes of ‘acceptable’, ‘respectable’ people…

The very nature of haram makes it a convenient prefix for a number of other gaalis. Notable amongst these are haramkhor (one who refrains from doing what is right) and harami (an illegitimate child or one who refrains from what is acceptable), both of which attempt in their own ways to establish a person as an aberrant break-away in society and thus disorient by dislocation.


Other commonly used gaalis include kutta, saala, kameena, chutiya and thukai. The first of these means dog, the second brother-in-law, the next bastard, the fourth ignoramus and the last refers to violent sexual intercourse. As is apparent, the first two are more or less incongruous, with no evident reason for causing offence except for the fact that they are now part of genres of “obscene” language. However, the last three, with clear sexual implications, do have basis for causing offence and hence their presence in this study.


Next on the list is chode, taken unanimously to be the Hindustani equivalent of the English fuck. It, like fuck, refers to sexual intercourse in a derogatory sense, having more to so with sex that is the consequence of not love but lust. Forced sex and perversions, all of these come under the ambit of chode. Further, as for haram, the graphic universality of chode makes it a suitable descriptive suffix for numerous types of sexual intercourses, all of which, needless to say, fall outside the domain of accepted sexuality.

Chode usually refers to incestuous, extramarital or casual sexual intercourse: hence the gaalis bhainchode (one who has sex with his sister), machode (one who has sex with his mother), betichode (one who has sex with his daughter) and ladkichode (one who has illicit sex with a girl). The intention here is to establish a person as a licentious misfit with a dangerously aberrant sexuality, something which threatens the existing order of society. The fact that all of these gaalis are usually directed at men makes this genre all the more interesting as one which, by attempting to show the man disastrously incapable of performing his duty of upholding the existing moral codes of society, exploits fully the old motif of protector turned predator/assaulter. This further attempts to strengthen the ‘otherness’ of the unfortunate receiver, making him a creature who deliberately breaks one of the worst possible taboos for his own gratification.


While chode includes all types of sexual orientation under its ambit, there is another genre of gaalis that deals specifically with anal sex, something which, continuing from the nineteenth century, is widely held to be unnatural. Prominent amongst these are gaand marane aya hai, gaand sil de and gaand phat rahi he kya, both of which clearly have connotations related to anal sex. This, combined with the fact that these are generally used in context of male homosexual relationships, makes the two extremely loaded terms. All of this helps advance the aura of unnaturalness which these gaalis attempt to create.


Till now we had been considering genres of those gaalis which attempt to establish those at whom they are directed as deviants indulging in or party to some of the worst possible sexual taboos. We will now briefly consider those which directly attempt to undermine their honour by challenging their mardangi, i.e. their capacity to defend/protect the honour, izzat, of their womenfolk.

Popular amongst these are the fill-in-the-blank gaalis teri/uski ma ki… and teri/uski ma ki aankh[in this context vagina]…, both of which attempt to pose grave challenges to a man’s mardangi by threatening to violate the izzat of his mother, or mother-figure. For one, leaving the threat incomplete, by not mentioning what dire fate awaits the ma, heightens the sense of insecurity. Then, issuing such a threat, of the destruction of that cornerstone of familial and, by extension, social life- the sanctity of the mother, is in itself one of the gravest possible challenges to a man’s mardangi and therefore, to his izzat.


As these arguments conclusively establish, gaalis or swear words are essentially subversive terms which bring into public consciousness some of the fundamental taboos in a society and hence, by exploiting these fundamental fears, attempt to threaten the very fabric of that society. Not just that, by the very virtue of being exploitative, they also highlight attitudes towards, amongst other things, gender and sexuality and so provide valuable insights into the socio-cultural framework of a society.

Afterthoughts and Clarifications-

Being stuck on damn for quite some years and not in the mood to proceed, doing this was pretty difficult for me…in any case, since I have done this I intend to forget it. It’s quite a horrid thing!

To all those people who’re ready to condemn me to eternal damnation after reading my ‘description of the Indian society’- hold your horses/curses! I have described society as it is seen through the prism of conventionality: these do not happen to be my own views.

And yes, I know that nobody thinks of all of these things while swearing because unfortunately, that has become, and is increasingly becoming, quite an acceptable habit of so many people. Perhaps, though that’s not likely enough (yet there’s nothing wrong in being optimistic!), these will give them second thoughts…