In the beginning the scriptures say, was naad – sound. Out of this arose the word as vac, and vac as language began to give visibility and form to all that was invisible and formless earlier.

While society and language were evolving, power hierarchies arose along divisions of caste, creed and gender. The power pack gradually began to embed its language with abusive words to define, humiliate and wound those that they feared and disliked.

The earliest bunch of Sanskrit abuses was directed at the original inhabitants of India who posed a tough challenge for the intruders from the West. They were a different colour, worshipped different gods, practiced guerilla warfare and abused them in a different tongue.

For them the arriviste coined pejoratives like asura (demon), guhyaka (one that attacks surreptitiously), shishn devah (ones that worshipped the phallus), sanunasikah (one that spoke with a nasal accent), shwapach (dog eaters) and so on.

Of such serial abusers from the privileged groups, the Mahabharata mentions Shishupal, the combative king of Chedi. He first baited the Pandava octogenarian Bhishma, calling him an ageing and impotent no-gooder. Then he proceeded to hurl a hundred choice abuses at Krishna, who was given a grand welcome at a grand yagna held to celebrate the ascension to power of the Pandavas, Krishna’s friends.

Shishupala, who belonged to the rival camp, cast many humiliating racist and casteist aspersions related to Krishna’s parentage, and made ugly sexual innuendos about the many women in his life. After he had crossed all limits, Krishna beheaded him.

Thus, the unenviable end of serial abusers.

Name calling

Power hierarchies were once again thrown into turmoil by the 10th century when Buddhism was in decline and Brahminism was replacing it as state religion. Abusing the once dominant Buddhism and Buddhists became common.

One of the major Buddhism baiters of that time was Kumaril Bhatt, who described Buddha’s principles of non-violence and introspection as unfit for imbibing, just like milk stored in raw hide (Shvadati nikshipt ksheervadanupayogi).

A century later, the Afghan and Arab warriors crossed the Khyber Pass and brought a new religion that threatened to demolish the caste-based Vedic system.

India’s ruling classes and upper castes realised too late that they had foolishly underestimated the seething anger and joint power of the untouchables and the marauding Yavanas (foreigners). They were stunned by the sudden exodus of the working classes and artisans into the Islamic brotherhood.

In the conflicted drama of assimilation, the erstwhile power pack had an unarticulated question: What is to be done about the outcastes who have gone to the other side?

There were only two possible answers: persecution or toleration. The first, by now, was impossible, the other was vile, but a face-saver. Immediately fertile ground was created for a fresh flurry of abuses and sayings.

The language of rebellion

The burgeoning hostilities were further sharpened by the host of dissident sects, led by sadhus and yogis. They discarded the caste system and negated the Vedic gods and gained immediate popularity among the masses forced to stand on the peripheries of the caste system and classical learning.

It helped that most of the new religious gurus came from mixed cultural backgrounds and had a flair for couching their heretical teachings in easily memorised poetic metres. The vast orally-transmitted literature served as a grand vehicle for radical thinking and became the mother lode to today’s Hindi.

The frank, in-your-face attitude of the sadhukkadi (language of the sadhus), is captured in poet Jayasi’s Padmavat:

“Ka poochhat ho jaat hamari, hum Jogi aur tapa bhikhari!
Jogi ker jaat nahin raja, gari na kheejh, mare nahin laaja.

(Why do you ask me about my caste, O king ?
Can’t you see I am a Yogi, a Sadhu and a beggar.
I feel neither anger nor shame at being abused or beaten up!)”

The wandering sadhus from sects such as Nath, Siddha, Niranjani and Kabir panth merrily wove colourful abuses in their verse paying, as it were, their classicist tormentors back for decades of casteist and sexist slurs.

After a while when the abusive wrangling matches between the upper castes and the caste baiters began to dilute the reformist ideas and Yogi Guru Gorakhnath, the great leveller of the caste system and proponent of Gorakh Panth, intervened and restored sanity. (It is ironical that in our time Gorakhnath’s temple in Gorakhpur has had two controversial leaders consecutively – the late mahant Avaidya Nath and his current successor Yogi Aditya Nath, who openly foment a militant version of Islamophobic Hinduism.)

The saint poet Kabir, another baiter of religious fundamentalism, came from the community of weavers, the largest converts to Islam, and therefore the most reviled. He came down heavily on both Hindu priests and Muslim clerics:

“Listen O saints, the Brahmins are the best butchers
(Sadho Pande nipun kasai).”

And the mullah,
“Just gathers pebbles to create a mosque to crow from,
as though God is deaf!
(Kankar patthar jod ke masjid layi banay,
ta chaddhi mulla bang de, kya bahara bhaya Khuday?)

This militant and defiant street language of the Hindi heartland went on to mingle with Persian, Arabic, Portuguese and English in time, and became mother tongue of no less than 11 of the most populous states of the north.

In the early 20th century it was already lampooning servile Indians “who read Persian only to sell oil (Padhein Farsee bechein tel)” and those “who go to Persia and return speaking a new tongue and may die of thirst asking for water in Persian when a jugful stood by their beds (Faaras gaye, Turuk bani aaye, boley Turki baani/ Aab aab kahi mari gaye, sirhaney dhara raha paani!)”

Similar lines were coined to lampoon the racist British colonial masters and their opportunistic bhakts. Some of these are immortalised in poems of popular poets like Bhartendu and Nazir Akbarabadi. Even the dialects joined in the fun.

In Kumaoni, a dialect of Hindi, a British sahib is described as a comic figure who holds a walking stick in one hand, a wrist watch on his wrist and is followed by a stray dog wagging his tail: “Hath mein chhadi, jeb mein ghadi, pachhin hadi!”

Hindi and the independence movement

It was this history of colourful and sharp defiance against foreign occupation and native subservience that led Mahatma Gandhi to discard English and his mother tongue, Gujarati, and favour Hindi or Hindustani (as Nehru called it to deflect the charge that the former was a Hindu tongue) as the most effective vehicle for mass communication during the independence movement.

The language Gandhi and his friends like Kaka Kalelkar used was a wonderful hybrid with flecks of many regional languages of the north such as Gujarati, Bangla and Marathi.

But in the years that followed, Hindi was much misused by the political elite eying the enormous number of seats that the Hindi belt occupied in Parliament.

As a supreme irony Hindi was also dubbed the national language and came to be looked upon, in its sarkari Sanskrit-laden avatar at least, as the language of the power pack.

Abuses flew thick and fast around the annual sarkari celebration of Hindi Divas on September 14, and non-Hindi speaking, non-Hindu citizens routinely took to the streets protesting the colonisation of India by a north Indian language, tarring Hindi billboards and burning Hindi circulars and papers.

Gradually even meetings of the Sahitya Akademis became arenas for hosting slanging matches against Hindi and Hindi writers.

In the current political scene in India abuses fly thick and fast and repeated public lynchings in the name of gau mata or Bharat mata or the national flag or the national anthem are on the rise nationally.

At this point, a Hindi writer’s pained question: “Is it wrong to be a Hindi writer today, because politicians are using its abusive variant to consolidate their vote banks?” Can this question form the common template for many other Indian doubts: What is Muslimness? What is femaleness? What is masculinity? Or being Indian?

The negative capability acquired by Hindi in the perennially overheated cross-cultural, cross-class plains of the Hindi belt, can also produce the perfect antidote against the silly ideological heroism being forced on us:

“The great Sangh’s message to the nation is this,
When you meet Tiwari, smile because you are a Tiwari,
When you meet Sharma, smile because you are a Sharma,
And blush when you meet Musaddi [a pejorative for a simpleton]
A permanent national embarrassment links us all across caste lines…” 

— – Hindi poet and writer Raghuvir Sahai (1929-1990).