Monday, October 23, 2006

This bridge haunts me, wondering if there's any water in that lake in Yelagiri. But, I hope its doing fine and the witch-doctor still sends his kids to school.
Yelagiri, Vellore Distt., Tamil Nadu, India

Reclaiming the streets: Guwahati Street talk

Assamese street language, or rather Guwahati street language, can be subversive. The reason why a lot of youngsters pick up these words early is because of their overtones. This really helps to hurl abuses at the rival’s face which can have a weakening effect on anyone. A very basic greeting is Abe son! Son’s meaning stays intact because anyone greeting/calling the other guy would assume himself to be a big daddy. If used among persons of equal ages, then a retort with at least one profoundly profane word to puncture the big daddy’s ego can be expected. If someone considers you as a bazaari, it means you are ‘sold out’. But ‘sold out’ to whom? Usually it’s the mob or the streets or may be even the market forces. Then, all those sleazy kinds also have been called bazaari. Bazaari may have originated near the Uzan bazaar area of Guwahati where a fisherman’s community prospered for several years. Fishermen would call their kin when someone succumbed to the market forces and changes the prices of fish abnormally without conforming to the prices the other fishermen are quoting. Clearly, these markets were more of a collective effort, as most of the fishermen would spread across the channel which required all the men in the community to set it up.
There can be other origins as well. It could have come out of a long-standing difference a lot of people had with the Marwari settlers in the Fancy Bazaar area. Bazaari is a dying abuse now. Very few youngsters would hurl this one at a fellow...after all, everyone’s Bazaari now! However, anti-corporate theme is still very apparent in the language. Cotton College during agitation days went through major changes. The hostelers would be extremely critical of their hip-swinging, uptown counterparts. According to some, terms like dhekeri (uncouth) and moqail (some retard client, who can be conned easily) also has its roots in the movement. The main issue in understanding the language (as a part of the movement/sub-culture, and the mainstream) is that the users don’t want to discuss the lingo of the agitation. There could possibly be several words which came in to existence during this period. The most creative ones went underground along with a generation that took the refuge of the guns. They never returned to remain buried in the memories. And for some they were just a reminder of violent days.

Surprisingly, when a new generation started using the lingo, they used what was spoken by the sub-culture revolutionary types (like label and banner) and the ones who used by uptowners. Label and banner were revived after many years, with the original meanings attached. They essentially pick on the show-off types. Label is used for someone who would throw names (contacts) at the wrong places, and also talk about their material possessions. Banner, is like a big brother of Label, used in the cases where even label doesn’t even work. However, after the revival the usage lost its restrictions. Label and Banner, sometimes, is used by young and chirpy kids to demonstrate their creative skills by arriving at the most arbitrary ones. For instance, one day in a city bus, two youngsters started talking about the new mall which has come up in the city. They just talked about how all the shops in that mall belonged to their folks. Then, the conversation reached bizarre extremes, when one of them said how his father met George Bush and his daughter flirted with him. The other one was, probably the most bizarre thing I have ever heard in the city. He said that Monica Lewinsky, who, is from Shillong, was his uncle’s mistress. The people in the bus got extremely annoyed and I guess I was the only one who enjoyed their talk. Failing to resist the temptation of asking them that what was going on, I found out that they were engaging themselves in a Label and banner session to kill the boring journey from school to home. I was shocked. Even we use to do it in school. It wasn’t that alien to me. We all did it but they had a new term for this act.
Street language since the agitation era or even before had the mainstream uptown youth as a target. In fact, the same phrases used by the mainstream, were hurled back at them. One instance can be seen in the movie; Jayanta Hazarika’s song Sandhya, Menaka, Rambha... makes fun of nouveau-rich of Guwahati during those days, as they party along with ‘bob-cut’ aunties draped in funny-looking sarees at a picnic. Agitation gave birth to the term for the quintessential casa nova: seni (literally meaning Sugar in Assamese). Because of the regimentation of the society propagated by convents, where students were raised according to the old colonial system, there are certain pre-conceived notions about intermingling of sexes. Officially, an eighth standard guy, if he manages to take his girl friend for a date then he would have treated his pals before.

When co-ed schools came, there would be someone or the other monitoring over the places to spot the seni (as in the act) happening. Marriages, Bihu functions and science exhibitions suddenly became the places where teamwork was laced with seni. Now it’s the noun form of seni is almost ignored, it’s the act which matters, because of which lots of teen brawls would happen.

Traditionally, the gender equation in Assam remains different from mainstream Indian culture. The youth has been opposing these things for a long time. The challenge that Assamese culture poses is against the patriarchal system of mainstream India. It is amazing to notice the bihu dancers tease their male counterparts for being so insolent. Nowhere, in this country you would notice women (college-going) teasing the guys (senis). While most of it is harmless, some guys take a huge offence when women term them as senis. The usual retort would be that the guy would stop near the paan-shop and light a cigarette to prove his worth. If seni is harmless, there’s johora which is overtly sexual. Johora means a philanderer. Someone committing adultery or someone who has been a con, and cannot be trusted for any future deal is called a johora. Kids, who pick up this word early, use it for anything they see is bad or not conforming to their ideas.
The street language also sheds light on the heartbroken lovers, losers, country bumpkins. Perhaps, the genuineness of this word would not be contested for a long long time. This word is Bah which literally means bamboo. The act of having a bah up your ass is condensed to the phrase: Bah khali? which literally means “have you eaten a bamboo”?
Sometimes, I would feel as if I am a giant panda which eats, shoots and leaves, whenever this question is asked. When a nasty break-up happens, or you get conned by a friend…it has to be a bah. Some of my friends stopped going to this restaurant called “U-turn”. It used to be a major hotspot for the dating couples, especially the high school and college crowd. By the end of the final year at the high school, most of the couples had broken up, especially those who went to U-turn. The blame would be on the restaurant. It’s not the bad food but the material used to make this restaurant which did not work with my friends. As a concept it was quite cool, but having everything made of bamboo, but with this plight of the neighbourhood linguistics, the cash flow, soon took a U turn. The restaurant still exists. A Bah or two doesn’t make big difference. Since bah is such a phenomenon, it is okay to talk about it with others. The fact that you’ve had a bah, makes the situation very light. You have so many bah-eaters (is this right way to describe the community?) around you, that you hardly feel anything.

However, people ditching/ avoiding other people/situations is usually called Kati-khuwa/Kati ja/Katis. Kati is to cut. And then there are people who you would always want to avoid…they are the essential bores or Kamur (which literally means ‘to bite’). The act of annoying/boring/bugging someone is kamura. Alcohol is also major ingredient of the street talk. Some of the words, however, emerged as a tirade against high spirits, especially imported or foreign liquor which essentially comes in a bottle. Hence, the word botola which translates to people/things/situations which one detests. Sometimes, the use is also restricted all things rotten. Botola is derived from the word bottle. One would be surprised that even the Mexican drink ‘tequila’, is a commonly used word in the street lingo. Taqi means alcohol and Taqila means drunkard. When you are all nice and head is spinning like the Milky Way, you are pel. While other forms of intoxication like marijuana is called Japu or simply, Pu.
To be continued..