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Watch your tongue

The great genre of political satire is dead in India because our public figures have become touchy and tense people.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2012 09:29 IST

As a half-Tamil, I was asked by a friend, “What exactly does ‘Kolaveri’ mean?”.

Confessing that I had not heard the word before I heard of the song, I tried to suggest meanings, not in words so much as in sentences which include ‘a rage so uncontrollable that you want to do someone in’. I explained that it was made up of two words ‘kola’ and ‘veri’, the first meaning ‘to kill’ and the second ‘a kind of rage or obsession’. An English compound word that comes closest, I put it, was ‘bloodlust’.

‘So does that make ‘kolaveri’ a swear word?’ the friend went on.

‘No, I don’t think so , for it is not hurled at anyone in particular but at one’s own general plight… it is not insulting, vulgar or obscene… more an exclamation… a kind of a helpless eruption which hurts no one, only describes a form of existential frustration…’

‘And as a song, which one in English or Hindi would approximate it?’

After wracking my memory I suggested the 1967 Bob Dylan hit ‘Drifter’s escape’. The friend was surprised — in fact, provoked. ‘But Drifter’s escape’ is a great song, it was the B-side to ‘I threw it all away…’

‘I know, I know…’ I said. ‘Of course ‘Drifter’s Escape’ is a great song, which is why I remember it and you do too and I am not comparing the two songs as such, only their spirit of puzzlement, frustration, a sense of feeling trapped and wanting to somehow escape from it all’.

The protagonist, in Dylan’s song, is on trial but he hasn’t a clue about why he is on trial. The judge — like Pontius Pilate — is sympathetic, but quite unable to do anything against the punitive jury — a mob. But before he can be hanged or lynched the courthouse is struck by lightning and as his persecutors drop to their knees to pray, the drifter escapes.

Who was the drifter, who were his tormentors ? Dylan does not explain. In the song’s ambiguity lies much of its beauty.

‘But Dylan does not use some murderous swear word…’

‘I know he doesn’t and as I said ‘kolaveri’ is not a swear word…’

‘Come on, ‘bloodlust…’

I found myself defending — almost endorsing — a song I had only read about in the papers and heard being sung by the jamming group led by Dhanush on a computer screen only once. Inevitably, conversation then drifted or escaped on to the subject of swear words as such.

Around the same time as this ‘Kolaveri’ adda, I had received from a friend a list with the delightful title of ‘Shakespeare Insult-Kit’ some ‘swear words’ used by Shakespeare. I had not gone down to doing the exercise that was prescribed in the same mail, namely, prefixing the Shakespeare-isms, drawn from more than one play, with a ‘Thou’ to generate a first class 16th century insult. But with ‘kolaveri’ and swear-words being talked about, I proceeded to do so and came up with these which have to be about Shakespeare’s best in that genre :

Thou craven half-faced hedge-pig

Thou dissembling milk-livered giglet

Thou rougish plume-plucked pottock

Thou weedy weather-bitten wagtail

Thou rougish onion-eyed scut

Thou villainous flap-mouthed measle

Thou beslubbering beetle-headed bladder

Thou roguish cod-piece

Thou puking pig-nut

Thou paunchy mumble-news

Thou fawning harpy

Thou spongy foot-licker

Thou reeky lout

The second and third elements in each insult are drawn from different Shakespeare plays, and (with ‘Thou’ pre-fixed) make for hilarious jibes. They cut; they don’t draw blood. I can think of people across the globe, specific individuals, for whom each one of those Shakespearisms would fit, custom-made.

Can words that ridicule or insult, form part of civil speech?

They can, provided they are not tossed out casually like used chewing gum, when they aren’t the idle smut we hear all around us every day, invariably fixated on human genitalia, when they are not in low taste, when they come from the mind’s ingenuity with humour rather than the mind’s scullery with grime. The origin or cause for ‘insulting’ someone or ridiculing something is, at its simplest, disapproval and at its gravest, hurt.

Its destination or objective is, at its simplest, hilarity and at its most serious, a rapier swipe.

‘True’ insults or ‘high’ ridicule, if they come from a real rejection of the object in question, motivated by a desire to expose fraud or hypocrisy or humbug, have an origin of some distinction and a destination of some reputation. They are not, in my opinion, profane.

But a certain line, a shadow line, exists which ridicule must not cross. Winston Churchill knew where that line lay. He crossed it, knowingly and notoriously, in his description of Gandhi. But the darts he threw at his peers and equals and alternatives at home, were not malicious. As when he decimated Ramsay Macdonald with: “We know that he has the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.” As also when he described Aneurin Bevan as “suffering from petrified adolescence.”

The great genre of political satire is propelled by an impulse to ridicule, to rip the lid off sanctimony or guile. And, if it is of quality, it does so with some style. As, of course, does the no less formidable art of cartooning. It is a yuga since we had high satire in India of the kind Sharad Joshi gave us. Our cartoons continue to be great, but distorting caricaturists outnumber the successors of Shankar, Abu, Mario Miranda.

What of our political discourse today? It does not employ wit enough, nor use quality sarcasm. It does not join funny image to sharp phrase, or try twinning mirth to scorn. It swears, it slays. It taunts, it taints. It debases, it defames.

With redeeming exceptions, our public figures have become tense and touchy people. Their tempers stay tuned to mikes, even as their smiles stay stitched to cameras.

( Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor )

The views expressed by the author are personal