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Cussing Customs: India Edition

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on December 27, 2008 5 Comments

The Hubli Unusual Abuse competition takes place today on the hallowed grounds of the Dakshina Vaishnodevi Temple in Karnataka, a southern Indian state. The participants will “hurl abuses” (in English, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and other Indian languages), and winners will be awarded flower garlands. There are some guidelines for competitors: the “abuses” should not be “offensive”; the cussing session has to be original, and entertaining for the audience; and participants have to refrain from commenting on “sensitive issues like religion, caste, politics, gender.” The cussing competitors can “perform” their tirades by themselves, or as couples (“husband-wife duo, friends or brother-sister”).

This interesting piece of news made me think of my own experiences with cussing in India. Growing up in Delhi, I was hardly sheltered from profanity in Hindi: I remember DTC, Redline and Blueline bus drivers and ticket-collectors routinely cussing out passengers or pedestrians; autorickshaw-wallahs in their yellow-green sputtering vehicles spewing venom at slow cyclists, wayward cars, or at cows blocking the street; and लाठी-wielding policemen walking their beats, pretty foul-mouthed on a bad day. On an average day in Delhi, you’re bound to chance upon a loud street fight somewhere—with dozens of “encouraging” gawkers in attendance—mostly young men indulging in verbal fisticuffs: anyone interested in acquiring the crudest cuss words in Hindi (purely for linguistic research purposes, natch) would be well advised to stand by and watch one of those unfold.

Using strong profanity in Bengali, my mother tongue, is generally taboo in front of elders or in what are called “polite” circles. I have never heard anything stronger than an “ও!” (Oh!) from my father, rarely anything stronger from Ma, and limited profanity from others in my extended family. The strongest word my late grandfather ever used was “মূল ‘র ডাঁটা” (which means “the stem of a radish”); my mother, on the rare occasion, ventures: “ছাতা!” (“Umbrella!”). By and large, the swearing within my family involves the following Bengali phrases: “ও বাবা” (“Oh father,” usually an exclamation of surprise or wonder. The Hindi equivalent is “बाप रे!”) and “ও মা” (“Oh mother,” an expression of pain, shock, and other sentiments). The most common swear words I have heard in my immediate circles—among friends and relatives—involve calling others (in Bengali): “গাধা” (donkey, indicating thick headedness); “গরু” (cow, indicating a lack of wisdom); কুকুর-শেয়াল (dog-fox, indicating belligerence or bellicosity); and “ছাগল” (goat, a “fraidy cat”); and (in Hindi): कुत्ता (dog, sort of all-purpose word), “भैंस” (buffalo, fat); and “उल्लू का पठ्ठा ” (owlet, indicating gullibility or a certain lack of intelligence).

While Bengalis—so far as I can tell—aren’t a very profane group of people, there’s an interesting cussing ritual that is conducted during traditional Bengali weddings. After the (Hindu) wedding ceremony is over, the local নাপিত (the barber)—generally clad in a ধুতি, with a গামছা flung over his shoulder—is invited to read off the worst kinds of গালি (cuss words) to the wedding party. I’m not entirely sure who he cusses out, or why, but that is the tradition. Go figure.

What are some unusual cussing stories you’ve heard of? [Comments will be moderated.]

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5 Responses to “Cussing Customs: India Edition”

  1. Youki on: 28 December 2008 at 2:23 am

    I remember the very first time I heard the word “cussing.” I was in 3rd grade, and another student told me, “soandso is cussing” and I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I kept asking “kissing? kissing who?” and this went on a few times until she explained to me what “cussing” was.

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 28 December 2008 at 5:17 am

    Heh. Funny.

  3. Usree Bhattacharya on: 28 December 2008 at 4:52 pm

    In the news today: a UNM Prof, Ferenc Szasz, “argued that so-called rap battles, where two or more performers trade elaborate insults, derive from the ancient Caledonian art of ‘flyting’.” Check out the article here.

  4. Youki on: 28 December 2008 at 6:55 pm

    interesting and fairly contentious article. If you see any responses, could you link those as well? I especially wonder how it would be received in other parts of the world.

  5. Usree Bhattacharya on: 28 December 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Right now there’s only like 4 mainstream news articles on the topic in the world, but I’ll keep checking on Google News. You can see some provocative comments on the HuffPo.

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