By Deborah Grey Aug. 04, 2017
I find Punjabi gaalis to be as satisfying as cheating on my strict vegan diet with a generous helping of mac and cheese.
Hindi isn’t my first language but I was hell-bent on learning it. The parents of all my friends had declared Hindi the language of drivers, nannies, maids, and watchmen and thus we were banned from even reading Hindi comics like Chacha Chaudhary, Bela aur Bahadur, and Nagraj.
So I began to furiously befriend Hindi-speaking children. I insisted they teach me their language and they did. They taught me that “kamine” meant puppies and “haraami” meant butterfly. My neighbour Meeta taught me the jingle for a contraceptive commercial insisting it was a good Hindi song that I must sing at my Christmas party that year… (those little shits!) I happily sang, “Garbh nirodhak goliyaan Mala-D hain mera raaz,” much to the shock of everyone present. For the next 24 hours mom treated me much like how Catelyn Stark treated Jon Snow at Winterfell.
I needed verbal ammo to get back at Meeta, but “codswallop”, “git”, or “knob” did not have enough firepower. So I started collecting Indian expletives. I started making a list and even verified the meaning of each word. Soon many other kids at school joined me and our database gradually expanded over a period of five excruciatingly long years to include “suar”, “kuttay” “tendi”, “patti”, and “jada dukkar” among others.
Over time, our cuss-word vocabulary grew richer, but we still lacked anything potent and truly despicable. That’s when twins Oloka and Onindo (who the school bullies called Aloo and Pyaaz because of how their names were pronounced) came up with the plan of forming a strategic alliance with the Punjabi kids.
The Punjabis were the coolest kids in school. Nobody messed with them because they were all much taller than the rest of us, excelled at sport, and when they swore, they did it with the aggression of a Pakistani fast bowler.
I offered to help Harvinder (Happy), Surinder (Sweety), and Talvinder (Tiny) with their English and Math homework if they taught me Punjabi expletives. They delivered on their promise. It was like watching Game of Thrones after years of only watching How I Met Your Mother.
We started dropping the K-bombs – kanjar, khachchar, and khottay da puttar – on bullies and mean kids. Meeta got a long-awaited and much-deserved khasmanu-khaye marjani! Even the watered-down and less-offensive versions of the swear words, delivered with the right amount of Punjabi intensity, sounded positively vicious.
No matter what your mother tongue, swearing in Punjabi acts like a pressure valve, like cleaning up the pipes. It might have something to do with how one exhales the guttural “bh”, “dh”, “gh” and “h” sounds: It forces you to spit out the negativity.
Sometimes when we did not want to use openly misogynistic swear words, saying something that sounded similar was also equally terrifying. So a “teri bhains di” had the same impact as the original curse aimed at someone’s sister. I mean, not everyone understands you are swearing at them, if you call them a Lannister! Even an innocuous “naamuraad” uttered with the right amount of venom is more effective than “jackass” or “bastard” (besides, Jon Snow has made being a bastard rather acceptable.)
The best part was that nobody ever believed that a Deborah, Shobhana, Bala, Joshua, or Oloka would be able to use Punjabi gaalis. There would always be a Happy, Sweety, or Tiny willing to testify in our favour, suggesting that the other kids were making things up to harass our band of meek little geeks.
To this date, I find Punjabi gaalis to be as satisfying as cheating on my strict vegan diet with a generous helping of mac and cheese. Because what is a well-aimed “ullu da pattha” or “behen di takki” if not a release of pent-up tension? No matter what your mother tongue, swearing in Punjabi acts like a pressure valve, like cleaning up the pipes. It might have something to do with how one exhales the guttural “bh”, “dh”, “gh” and “h” sounds: It forces you to spit out the negativity. Breathing correctly goes a long way in anger management and Punjabi gaalis force you to exhale properly. It’s almost like hacking your opponent with a scythe, minus the criminal case.
I haven’t completely abandoned “scoundrel”, “rascal”, or “dung beetle”, but none of these expletives have enough bite. English swear words lack the aggression that a full-throated Punjabi gaali packs in – the verbal equivalent of hurling a Patiala peg at someone’s head. Marathi ones like “jaadeya” (fat), “kutreya” (dog) and “dukreya” (pig) almost sound musical in comparison. The most un-impactful are Bengali swears: I mean “pocha tiktiki” (rotten lizard), “sheddo bang” (boiled frog), and “bhaja paencha” (fried owl) sound more like exotic foods at the Calcutta Club. Even the truly evil “boka bodjaat” (ill-bred fool) sounds oddly chaste compared to a silly yet oddly menacing “ghasiyaara” (grass-cutter). With Punjabi, I also have the liberty to invent my own curses. I am particularly proud of “gotte phoot jayien tere” (I wish your testicles would explode).
“Foul language is the last recourse of the linguistically challenged,” my imperious granny would languidly declare, even as her knotted and gnarled fingers toiled furiously to knit yet another sweater I was unlikely to wear. Her words still linger in my ears, and perhaps I will feel compelled to apologise to her when I visit her grave the next time. But I doubt I’ll ever give up swearing in Punjabi. Without these little elves, I have a feeling I will be curled up at the shrink’s couch, helpless.