“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” ― George Orwell, 1984
Language is not just something we use to convey our thoughts to each other, but something that can shape our thoughts in ways hidden and sublime. But we rarely understand the full power of language and how, which if wielded in mala fide ways, can create, nourish and integrate a culture based on debasing women, even among those who consider themselves progressive and immune to misogyny. In fact, if the damaging effect of gendered language, especially when brandished to enforce the inferior status of women, is not understood, acknowledged, and countered, it can make us compliant while a gendered and misogynist status-quo is maintained.
India has four language families, Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, and Sino-Tibetan, but this article would engage in the case-study of one word of the Indo-Aryan language Hindi, the word for wife’s brother, called ‘saala’.
Why focus on this word, ‘saala’? Why not focus on “man” being the default gender or on much harsher abuses such as “bh*nchod”? Or, at least why not focus on a word that is traditionally considered abusive to women, such as “randi”, when all it is just another profession?
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This is because the word ‘saala’ is interesting for many reasons. I have knowledge of two languages, Hindi and English, but in either language, no other word denotes both a family member and a cuss word. “Mother” is not a cuss word, but “motherf*cker” is. Similarly, “behen” is not a cuss word, “bhench*d” [sisterf*cker] is. Even the words “aunty” and “bhenji” are used in a derisive manner because of the larger context of ageism-fuelled sexism and prude-shaming but, strictly speaking, they are not swear words.
Another reason is that the first and foremost victim of this duality of ‘saala’ is not women, but men. The word ‘saala’ has a female counterpart, “saali” for the sister-in-law of a man. However, it is a deliberate choice not to focus on “saali” as one of the principal ideas and I wish to make clear that gendered language, even when based on furthering misogyny, can have male victims. I do not mean to say that women are not victimised at all. It is the lower status of the woman that enables the dual-nature of “saala”. But the point I wish to make is that you may be a man without a feminine bone in your body, but misogyny takes no prisoners. The only possible solution is that you have no married sisters, or married cousins. Such a state of affairs is unquestionably not a healthy state for society, and the longer it goes unchallenged, the bigger its legacy becomes.
Lastly, “saala” invokes a man’s female relative as a basis of humiliation but the invocation is implied and not expressed, unlike in “bhench*d” or “motherf*cker”. The humiliation of the man on the receiving end of the word “saala” arises from the implication that he has a sister and his sister has marital relations with the abuser. The simple act of marriage of a sister, otherwise considered a respectable and desirable act, bestows a black mark on every man, no matter what his social status. This hypothetical man may pride himself on his masculinity and answer any signs of disrespect with violence but the language and tradition compel inaction on him and prevent him from retaliating. He has no choice but to be called “saala” for the rest of his life, even if the socio-economic status, age and moral character of his brother-in-law is lower than him.
There are two comparisons here to contextualize “saala”. One is with English language and the other is with the terms for other relatives and family members in Hindi. While English is itself a gendered language enriched with sexist swear words, it cannot boast of such a unique concept. It is not unfamiliar with the idea of dual meanings of the word. “Give me money, daddy” can be used by a child to ask for money for chocolates from his actual father or by say, by someone for her request to be compensated by an elderly customer.
But, no one in Anglophone nations thought of making a term for a relative an abuse in itself. After all, shouting at someone, “F*ck off, brother-in-law” in English doesn’t exactly have the same feel, right?
A comparison of the term “saala” with its Hindi counterparts is an interesting exercise. The titular “saala” cannot humiliate his brother-in-law in revenge by invoking his relation with his sister and using the Hindi term for such brother-in-law, “jija” or “behnoi”. “Jija” and “behnoi” do not moonlight as abusive words. To add to his impotent rage, his sister too cannot avenge his humiliation. The words “nanand” [sister of the husband], “jeth” [elder brother of the husband] and “dever” [younger brother of the husband] do act as misandrist counterparts of the misogynist “saala”. Interestingly, age-based hierarchy trumps sex-based one. You have the right to call your wife’s brother as “saala” even if he is 10 years older to you. There is no age-based differentiation as it exists for a woman’s in-laws in the terms “jeth” and “dever”.
Of course, the entire dual-nature phenomenon can lead to some awkward situations. Being simply introduced by someone as saala can be a bit insulting, even if you are in fact a “saala” by marriage to that person. People will try to make it “saale-ji” to wash out the bad taste the word leaves in our mouth.
I must clarify though that I don’t wish to overstate the power to humiliate this word enjoys. If you wish to insult someone deeply in Hindi, it’s not the go-to word. However, where it lacks in its impact, it makes up in its frequency. Also, somewhere, its moderate power to humiliate is a matter of necessity. How would you get past the censor when using the word “saala” for innocent purposes if it was in the leagues of the Hindi counterpart of motherfucker, for instance? Imagine a man introducing his brother-in-law as “beep-ji”.
So, what can we do? The creative ones among us can perhaps come up with new words to replace “saali” and “saala”. The Anglophile can banish these words in favour of the neutral “sister-in-law” or “brother-in-law”. Another available course is to start treating “dever” and “nanand” as abuses. You reply to “abe, saale” to “abe, dever” in a harsh, guttural tone but only if you have any influence can you make a dent.
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Trying to dilute the abusive connotation of the word through media and education, as the Western feminists have tried to do with “slut” and “bitch”, may not be quite fruitful. It is already used as a term of endearment among some people and I am skeptical of how much success any such attempts will meet.
Or, maybe, we can let the word be, as a badge of shame and proof of misogynistic double standards that our culture has engaged in since times immemorial. Do not be mistaken; I do not suggest inaction. The implication of the duality of “saala” should be deplored loud and clear in the plainest language. But, let its erasure and neutralisation serve as the last, symbolic milestone which feminists will seek to achieve when they have dismantled patriarchal legacy in more material fields.
Apoorva Vishnoi is a lawyer working in a think tank on trade and investment law. Having completed her law degree in 2019 from a college in Punjab, she’s discovering what it means to live on her own, as a working woman. She’s interested in history, politics, international relations, sociology and, of course, Bollywood. She knows her Max Weber as well as her Madhuri Dixit. You can find her on Instagram.
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