Lifting the curse: The Gaali Project aims to change how you swear
Two women, Tamanna Mishra and Neha Thakur, are compiling a glossary of Indian insults that you can use without guilt, because they’ll put down your foe without prejudice.
Tired of the fact that most curse words drag in innocent uninvolved parties, two Indian women are putting together a glossary of desi alternatives that don’t take a dump on women, the differently abled, sexual minorities or those from castes seen as lower.
Friends Tamanna Mishra and Neha Thakur, a communications consultant and AirBnB host respectively, started The Gaali Project in September. It began as a crowdsourced campaign conducted via Google forms. The women asked people to send in their favourite swear words that didn’t drag down another person, and — using the handles @thegaaliproject on Instagram and Facebook — began explaining which ones were “good” and why.
So, words like guldu (Kannada) and bhakchonhar (Bhojpuri), both literally meaning blind and used to indicate that someone is foolish, were vetoed for their inherent bias, in this case against the differently abled.
Those that made the cut include lyadhkhor, Bengali for addict of sloth, and used to call someone a chronic procrastinator or lazy layabout; bawaseer ka naasoor, Urdu for piles wound, used to describe someone who’s a pain in the backside; and the Marathi use of dukkar or pig to indicate that someone is obstinate or annoying.
For years it had bothered them, the women say, that even as humour evolved, with women and men taking to stand-up and streaming platforms and telling of new kinds of lived experiences, the punchlines often continued to bash the already marginalised.
“Points of view are emerging that are really important for the evolution of the ways we think and act. But in many instances, they’re incorporating language that’s extremely regressive and hateful,” says Mishra, 37.
Globally, over the past decade, there has been a push to reclaim words (slut walks, pussy marches are some examples) and change the terms with which we express anger, frustration, disappointment to ease some of the misogyny and inherent bias in the way we curse. For Mishra and Thakur too, the concern was the long-term implications of traditional swear words — particularly the easy banter about violence against women.
“We thought the only way to bring about change would be to make it fun. So rather than preach about which curse words are wrong, we thought we’d bring alternative ones into focus,” says Thakur, 37, a former data analyst.
So far, the women have received more than 800 responses to their poll, from across 15 states. About 30% of the words submitted are still misogynistic and / or born from prejudice, but a lot of the curse words they’ve collected are funny and endearing.
There’s aab dabbe, a Kashmiri term that literally means box made of water, and is used to call out a person with no substance; bhakarmallu from Jharkhand, a Nagpuri word meaning overconfident idiot; bhakkua, an Odia term meaning supreme fool.
It takes a wide network of checks before the women accept a term into their glossary. Typically, they depend on independent research and at least one conversation with an impartial party who knows the language. “We don’t want to end up promoting something biased by accident,” Thakur says.
There are now words in their collection in Assamese, Haryanvi, Tamil, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and of course Hindi. “So far, we haven’t got anything from Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. We’re still looking,” Thakur says.
Priyanka Batra, 36, a Punjabi from Mumbai, contributed a couple of her favourite gaalis and was happy to see both accepted. Her first was baawdi poonch, literally a tail that wags incessantly, used for someone who’s lost the plot or is talking nonsense, and chittar khaane aa (literally, come get your slipper), commonly used by Punjabi mothers to indicate they’re tempted to smack a young one.
“These words get the point across without being offensive,” Batra says. “We grew up hearing relatives, parents and siblings use these terms on us, and it served their purpose of shutting us up without hurting or scarring us.”
Once a word has made it into the Gaali Project repository, it is uploaded as a designed social media post or meme, the origins and meaning explained. At the very least, the women say, the words will bring laughter to readers and teach them a phrase from another language.
Hopefully, some words will get out there, find their way into more common usage, and prompt more people to send in examples and keep the conversation going.
“We are taking it one day at a time. But after the project is done, we might think of writing a book,” Mishra says.