June 18, 2017

The War on Misguided Youth

Aditya Sinha's amusing New York Times piece on the Indian bureaucracy's love of euphemism:
If the “War on Terror” had been undertaken by the government of India, it probably would have been called the “War on Misguided Youth.” That’s because in the 1980s and ’90s, when New Delhi was trying to suppress separatist movements in Punjab, Kashmir and Assam, each official speech and classified document used the euphemism “misguided youth” to refer to young men who had rejected the idea of India and had taken to arms.

Such a tame euphemism conjures images of sulky teenagers falling into bad company at the school playground, rather than the reality of politically active young people challenging the existing order. Undoubtedly, by understating the movement’s potency, the euphemism also served to undermine it. As India’s government did not send in a battery of guidance counselors to settle grievances but instead sent in the Indian Army to subdue the “boys,” India’s war on terror might even have been called “Befitting Reply to Misguided Youth.” The army likes to talk in terms of giving fitting and befitting replies; it not only gives a sense of the other guy having started it, but it also sounds gentlemanly, as if war were cricket and it was now the home side’s turn at bat.

The Indian Army isn’t much different from the Pentagon in using euphemisms that seek to give a clinical gloss to the essential job of militaries, which is killing. The only difference is that where the Pentagon is Orwellian in its language, the Indian Army is Wodehousian. Thus the government never tires of declaring to its citizenry: “Our armed forces are prepared for any misadventure,” as it did in its response to the fourth war with Pakistan in 1999 in Kargil in Jammu and Kashmir. A lethal battle on the disputed border is routinely described as a skirmish. Perhaps, then, the war on terror would correctly be called, in Indian officialese, “Befitting Reply to Misguided Youth’s Misadventures”.

Slang Sighting: 2×2 Talkies

Via the city guide Mumbai Boss, now defunct:
Gaysi, the chaps behind LGBT open mic night Dirty Talk, return this Sunday, April 6 with 2×2 Talkies, a series of film screenings that borrows it name from the street lingo that denotes a place where gay men meet covertly.

Slang Sighting: Downtwo

This was described to me as a slang term for testicles, used at St Andrew's School in Bandra, Mumbai. 'Bugger, I'll kick you in your downtwo, you'll go crying for your mama'.

भाखा बहता नीर: language is like flowing water

I'm not too sure where I came first across this line of Kabir's, which describes his views on language in a pithy epigrammatic style, contrasting the dead Sanskrit of ancient religious texts with bhakha or bhasha (literally 'language'), the colloquial living language of his time which he used in his own verse.'संस्करित है कूप जल, भाखा बहता नीर' it reads: Sanskrit is like stagnant water in a well, but bhakha, the true language of the people, changes constantly and cannot be bound by rules, like flowing water. That's a lot to convey in just six words, and I'm curious what the second line of the couplet could be. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find it online. If any reader can provide it, I'll be most grateful.

Update: MMcM, a reader at Languagehat, has posted a link to the book Gujarat and its Literature by KM Munshi, which quotes the entire couplet along with some additional verses.
संस्कृतहि पंडित कहै, बहुत करै अभिमान
भाषा जानि तरक करै, ते नर मूढ़ अजान
संस्करित संसार में, पंडित करै बखान
भाषा भक्ति दृढावही, न्यारा पद निरबान
संस्करित है कूप जल, भाषा बहता नीर
भाषा सतगुरु सहित है, सतमत गहिर गंभीर
Here's my loose translation, based on Munshi's prose rendition. In the last line I've used an alternative version I found, which has सरल instead of गहिर:
The pandit spouts Sanskrit and preens arrogantly:
'The man who would argue in bhasha is an ignorant fool!'
The pandit praises Sanskrit through the entire world
But in bhasha alone is firm faith, the verse of salvation
Sanskrit is water in a well, bhasha a running stream
Bhasha is one with the true guru, the true word simple and deep
It's interesting to read the entire couplet and see how the meaning of the line I quoted has changed. It's about language, yes, but it is also about the search for truth. A paradox is introduced: Sanskrit may be the repository of classical knowledge, a well from which many have drunk, but its still waters do not run as deep as the flowing stream of bhasha, in which one may stand and look all the way through to the profound truth.