Prickly Pears



Long ago, at college in Nagpur, I had a friend -very smart, very stylish, very attractive and, of course, very brave. It was from her that I learnt never to have any holy cows in life but at that age I thought she carried both her profanity and irreverence towards people, situations and also social mores a bit too far.

But I also noticed that that bravado sometimes served her well and got her out of sticky situations without much of the trouble the rest of us were put to under similar circumstances. Like the time when she was walking down the hill where our college was located, on a deserted road, rather late in the evening. Obviously a Romeo with nothing to do, she was being followed by a man on a bicycle who kept offering her a ride. “Take a seat,” he would say again and again, slowly sailing past her and repeat the offer again when she came abreast and, paying no attention, walked past him non-chalantly.

But she was seething within and soon that slow bicycle chase proved too much to bear. When he asked her to ‘take a seat’ again, my friend broke into some colourful abuse. “Abey, B…dk!” she scrammed at the man at her loudest. “Jaata hai ki nahin, ya main police ko bulaon!”

I am sure it was not the threat of reporting him to the cops that had the desired effect. The man had simply fallen off his bike in sheer surprise and disbelief. So demure and petite and sophisticated seemed my friend that he did not expect to hear that choice abuse from her. “Kya zamaana aa gaya hai!” he mumbled, as he scrambled onto his bicycle again and furiously pedalled away. “Aaj kal memsaab log bhi gaaliyan deti hain!”

We couldn’t stop laughing though we did not quite know then what that word meant, only knowing that it angered our elders a lot when it was mentioned in their presence. In fact, not until ‘Delhi Belly’, did it become common currency again in our lexicon, and that too because Aamir Khan so ingenuously reversed the syllables, making it sound like a name instead of an abuse.

A classmate from those years called me up and refreshed my memories about the incident. “Say that word again and again; fast, really fast,”she said. “Now what does that remind you of?”

“the Romeo on the bike chasing ….(name concealed)?” I asked.

“Precisely! But then what Debu?”

The penny dropped. “Oh God,” I exclaimed. “He must be feeling so awful today!”

“Yes,” said this friend. “Thank God none of us thought of it then. Or else his life would have been made miserable at college.” For, Debu was purr very own DK Bose then.

However, despite the wild success of the film, I did not hear of any Bengalis complaining about the insult to one of their surnames and this could really have been objectionable had they wanted to, well, object.

So when Raj and Uddhav Thackeray demand an apology from the producers of Bigg Boss for a couple of contestants using a Maharashtrian name (P K Lele) to describe the character of a ’servant’ on the show, I wonder where there sense of humour has gone.

I know that a series of civic elections is due in Maharashtra a few months from now but the manner in which the Shiv Sena and its offshoot have been carrying on now for weeks paints such a dour picture of the Maharashtrian that it really does no service to the community.

Admittedly, Maharashtra has the funniest surnames in the country but that is because of its Bhosale kings who had a great sense of humour and also evoked an easy method of tracking their vast number of darbaris. So if someone suddenly developed a stomach ache, he and his progeny simply became ‘Potdukhe’ forever; a man with a broken nose became ‘Naktode’; a liar was ‘Khote’, ‘Khare” was a true man. One who had stopped after seven sons was always referred to as ‘Saatpute’ ever afterb (there are also Ashtaputres). And when they had no distinguisng characteristics, they were simply known as Aurangabadkar or Medhekar after the places they came from.

But it was not just a sense of humour that defined that trait of the Bhosale kings. The renomenclature was also an ideal means of masking the castes of their subjects so that the mere mention of a name did not generate the kind of prejudices that happened in those times and obliterated the differences altogether over time. Maharashtra is a unique state in that respect owing to its enlightened kings – Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar too drew his idea of affirmative action from Shahu Maharaj who drank tea openly at the stall of a Dalit and defined a quota for backward communities long before become it became constitutional in independent India). So much so that many Dalits today carry upper caste Maratha names (for example, Chavans, Pawars and Gaikwads among others could all be either Dalit or from royal lineages).

Maharashtrians pride themselves on being the most socially progressive state in the country, pioneers of their times, who have brought about lasting changes for bettering society even before the ideas were found acceptable elsewhere. No wonder they are among the most advanced and educated of Indians, in high places (for example, Vikram Pandit, the highest paid CEO in this world at a time when Raj Thackeray would want fellow Maharashtrians to take over and replace those Uttar Bharatiyas who are just taxi drivers and pheriwaalas in Bombay), and, well, going places.

So the Thackerays do tend to get tiresome with their prickliness over everything, including names, while they continue to pay scant attention to their own – it is an anglicised version of Thakre, like Tagore is of is the Bengali ‘Thakur’) and was adopted by Bal Thackeray’s father in tribute to the India-born British write William Makepeace Thackeray, whose writings he greatly admired.

Of course, many people who detest the Thackerays sometimes poke fun at the name by corrupting it to ‘Thok Re’, which I do not think makes for a very edible interpretation . But, strangely, I do not see any of the Thackerays objecting to that one. So if some innocent fun is made of one name out of so many by one contestant in the Bigg Boss house by punning on it in another language, I do not know why that should become a political issue. They should be awakened to the fact that the Maharashtrian does not really enjoy being painted such a joyless ogre. Nor does he/she enjoy life as a porcupine.

And someone please tell these tiger cubs that humour is not just poking fun at others, but also an ability to laugh at oneself too. Roaringly.

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