Sometime in the mid-80s, I came across the word ‘whore’ for the first time. It was tucked away inside a sentence in a longish essay in The Illustrated Weekly Of India by Khushwant Singh (who else?) as part of a photo-feature on Bombay’s Victoria Terminus. Possessing the English vocabulary of a Hardy Boys-Phantom Comics reader at that time, I stopped at the word, tried to make some sense of it according to the other words soliciting in the vicinity (‘painted faces’, ‘staring’, ‘saris’) and asked my father what ‘whore’ meant. He mumbled something about a ‘bad woman’, which struck me as exceedingly odd as there was a rule in the house that each time I would come across a new word I would look up its meaning in the dictionary instead of taking the lazy option of asking someone.
Not satisfied by my father’s response and repeating the strangely ominous word under my breath over and over again, I looked up ‘whore’ in my Pocket Gem Dictionary. It just had one meaning: prostitute, which, incidentally, was another word I came across for the first time. I proceeded to look up the meaning of ‘prostitute’ and was given a father-like
answer by the dictionary — ‘a disreputable woman’ or some such explanation.
A couple of decades later, with my English vocabulary slightly expanded and Franklin W Dixon having given way to other writers (not excluding, John Ford, the author of that splendid 17th century tragedy, ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore), I find myself wanting to know what the word ‘gigolo’ exactly means.
Now, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be in the Bush adminizztration, but her training in clazzical music makes her qualified enough to know a gigolo from a piccolo. So when she says, according to her new biography, that Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz “tried this Saville Row-suited gigolo kind of charm”, I want to know what she means. As far as dictionary definitions go, a gigolo (jig-uh-loh) is: 1. a young man paid or financially supported by an older woman to be her escort or lover. 2. a professional male dancing partner.
Dandy from Rawalpandi
Aziz saab may be the pin-up on every 50-plus Punjabi lady’s imaginary wall, but no one would consider him a young man in need of financial support. And if he has a professional dancing thing going on on the side — after all, as PM of Pakistan he doesn’t have that much work — the world doesn’t know about it. So for Condi to call him a gigolo, a man who turns on the charm full blast and is caught trying to turn on the charm by “staring into Rice’s eyes”, there must be something. Except I don’t know exactly what it is. Normal dictionaries don’t quite explain.
An etymological dictionary provides me with some clues. The word probably comes from ‘giglot’, a 14th century Middle English word that means “lewd, wanton girl” that was later applied to men by the 16th century with the sense of “villainous man”. But Shaukat Aziz a villainous man? A lewd, wanton girl? Ok, a lewd, wanton man? We’re talking about a seriously manly Punjabi here — ‘manly Punjabi’ being a tautology for all Punjabi men. He can’t possibly be gigolo material if we go by the dictionaries.
Look at the word. It has seriously comic, fumbling-to-impress connotations. Even the word sounds like a Cartoon Network character, a bouncy open-vowelled trisyllable that sounds like the name of a cuckolded husband with a powdered wig in a Verdi opera.
A clue in the movies?
But maybe the answer to Condi’s description can be found in American pop culture. Take the 1980 film American Gigolo. The uber-slickness, the charm, the rich baritone, — “This is a land of a rich traditions,” he said looking into her eyes while curling his lips in the corner and handing her the sherbet — is mirrored (okay, not the rich baritone bit) in Richard Gere’s character Julian Kaye. The problem is that Julian is a — oh my God! — male prostitute.
Let’s not linger here before this interpretation erupts into a full-scale change of Pak-US relations. Let’s look at something lighter that the fun-loving Condi may have been referring to. The 1999 comedy Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo follows the capers of Bigalow (the gopher-looking Roy Schneider, who happens to be at least two feet shorter than Aziz), a fish caretaker. He finds himself in trouble after he destroys the aquarium of a client who happens to be — oh my God! — a male prostitute. So Bigalow helps to replace the state-of-the-art fish tank by filling in for his holidaying client as a — oh my God! — male prostitute.
I’m afraid I cannot confirm whether the US Secretary of State called the Prime Minister of Pakistan a male prostitute. But if India can get chummy with the US a few years after we got to know that President Richard Nixon described Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a “bitch” in 1971, I’m sure Pakistan-US relations won’t suffer after the American Secretary of State called the Pakistani PM a “gigolo” in 2005. It’s not as if Washington will stop leaving those crisp notes on the tabletop after another bout of torrid war against terror with Pakistan.
Haiku for Khushwant
old hair in turban.
The heat makes puddles.
Next week his words again.