3 years


Insulting Traditions

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A history of insults in Indian literature

Reading an excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s recently released autobiography, Joseph Anton, written in third-person, I was struck by the following sentences:

When friends asked what they could do to help, he pleaded, ‘Defend the text.’ The attack was very specific, yet the defence was often a general one, resting on the mighty principle of freedom of speech. He hoped for, felt that he needed, a more particular defence, like those made in the case of other assaulted books, such as ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’ ‘Ulysses,’ or ‘Lolita’—because this was a violent attack not on the novel in general, or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words… That was the nature of the attack, and so for many years ‘The Satanic Verses’ was denied the ordinary life of a novel. It became something smaller and uglier: an insult. And he became the Insulter, not only in Muslim eyes but in the opinion of the public at large.

The main complaint that Rushdie seems to have is that his novel is a work of great literature, and that insults are too small and ugly to qualify as literature. This is a false contention. Insults have been part of both South Asian and European literature, and have a long pedigree. Moreover, Rushdie appears to have tapped a particular tradition of insults in his book, and that is one of the key reasons that The Satanic Verses provoked—and continues to provoke—such strong reactions. 


Had Rushdie been more familiar with South Asian literature, he may not have used the term, ‘the Insulter’. The proper Urdu term is ‘zatalli’, which loosely translates as ‘the one who uses cursewords’; it is also the takhallus, or pen-name, of one of the most interesting figures in South Asian literature: Jaffar Zatalli.

Jaffar emerged in the Mughal Court out of nowhere, a quintessential Delhiite who arrived from somewhere on the broad outskirts of Delhi suba with no patron or anything to recommend him except his strong opinions and phenomenal control of language. He lived in 17th Century Delhi, during and after Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign, and lamented the cruelties and pettiness of the Mughal Court. He was not afraid of speaking truth to power. Even better, he was not above cursing the powerful either. He mocked Khan-e-Jahan, one of the nobles of Aurangzeb’s court, with the verses:

Khan-e Jahan, how well you bungled!/ Spit in your beard, your face damned and cursed. / Your mount dropped down at Sansi / Spit in your beard, your face damned and cursed.

You frittered away your treasure, nothing came from your hand,/ What the hell could you pluck at Sansi?/ Spit in your beard, your face damned and cursed.

So wretched, so abject, have you no shame? / In every home they curse you and spit at you, / Spit in your beard, your face damned and cursed.

You presented your back to the Jats, you had no shame / For your beard even. Now go, put on a woman’s loose skirt / Spit in your beard, your face damned and cursed.

(Courtesy: a translation from an essay by Shamsur Rehman Faruqi)

Referring to royal mistresses in Emperor Farrukhsiyar’s time, Jaffar remarked that they were compared to the moon but more closely resembled the buttocks of a buffalo. The story goes that Jaffar paid for his insults with his life—garrotted to death on the orders of Emperor Farrukhsiyar, whom he mocked as well, although evidence of this is weak. 

Jaffar was one of the most prominent literary figures of his day. He wrote a number of books that chronicled Aurangzeb’s Deccan campaigns and the war of succession among his sons. He also wrote an elegy on Aurangzeb’s death. In the realm of poetry, he rejected all other genres of poetic expression popular at the time (such as the nazm and ghazal, which were usually used for romantic expression), preferring to compose free-verse in his own critical style. He was so popular and eloquent that Prince Azam, Aurangzeb’s son, lamented, “If only he had not been such a zatal, he could have been shora-ul-mulk (poet of the land).”

Jaffar Zatalli and his works are never dismissed as small or ugly. He is the Insulter, one of the greats of 17th century South Asian literature. In Urdu poetry, we have never really had someone like him since, someone who could so wantonly take on temporal rulers. But we did get a Chirkeen.


Sheikh Baquer Ali ‘Chirkeen’ lived almost a century after Jaffar, and his specialty was the use of scatological references in his work. Terms like ‘muut’ and ‘hag’ peppered his poetry like… er, maybe a simile is best avoided here. Instead of insulting the powerful, Chirkeen was more interested in offending the sensibilities of those who saw themselves as cultured. The proof of his success is that more than two centuries after he wrote his Diwan-e-Chirkeen, it remains in circulation. But people rarely speak about it, except the already initiated. In which case, they are likely to quote something like:

Tere ghar se jo ab ke jaoonga, / Mootne bhi kabhi na aaonga

(When I leave your house this time, / Not even for a piss will I ever return).

The traditions of both Zatalli and Chirkeen survive well in today’s world, although the practitioners of this craft may not be of the same stature. Among the best memories I have of my time as a (kind of) student at Aligarh Muslim University were the gaali competitions on campus. Like other parts of Uttar Pradesh, Aligarh was afflicted with frequent electricity cuts. Unlike most other UP towns, though, Aligarh houses nearly 30,000 students in hostels—many of them literate. This had led to a tradition of students stepping out of their rooms as soon as the lights went out to address their neighbours, hostel wardens or residents of other hostels under the cover of darkness.

Since this tradition had had time to settle in, and because AMU, like other universities, aspires to be a symbol of cultural sophistication, many of these insults were wrapped in poetry. So we had rhyming couplets, the use of alliteration and consonance, references to contemporary events, and also commentary—all laced with the choicest of curse words. For me, long isolated from my own culture and the Urdu language by my years in boarding school, it was a fascinating introduction to the language and its capabilities. Of course, I did have a hard time figuring how exactly a Tyrannosaurus Rex, for example, could manage some of the bestial acts that were being proposed it perform on members of Jubilee Hostel.

Not all gaali competitions ended happily for all concerned. A slip of the tongue could ruin the best couplet, and even though we could not see each other in the dark, the embarrassment of a weak reply burnt just as bright within all of us.

I remember a special case that became a campus legend. I forget the gentleman’s name, let’s just call him Salman for convenience. He was blind, and would always join the contest as soon as he heard the rest begin. He was more enthusiastic than most, and for some reason his insults were reserved specifically for the hostel warden.

One evening, when Salman was in full flow, piling invective upon stunning invective, the lights came back on. Being caring, respectful hostel-mates, none of us told Salman. After a while, though, the warden strolled over to Salman, who was still giving it all he had at the top of his voice, put a gentle hand on his outstretched arm, and said, “Salman sahib, light aa gayee hai.”


The use—and especially transformation of—insults is no easy game, and is usually easier within cultures than between them. It takes some skill and finesse to manage the first, but not even the greatest artistry can really overcome insults coined in bigotry or hate. A little research of the past reveals that all cultures have histories of murder and aggression—and insults born of it.

We try leaving the insults that arise from such interactions in the past, or more ambitiously, try changing the very meaning of insults born of bigotry. African Americans have tried to reconceptualise ‘nigger’, inverting it to a term of pride. In India, some among the gay community use the term, ‘gaandu’ in a less-than-pejorative sense, as a playful insult. It works, but only to a small degree and in controlled environments. ‘Paki’ is still an insult in England, as is ‘chamaar’ in India. I am unsure how a novel by an American of European origin that uses the word ‘nigger’ would be regarded. I presume not very highly. Such insults that have their origin in contempt and bigotry are very difficult to use in literature, and harder still to transform.

This was brought home to me when I was reading a very old edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe borrowed from the AMU library. In one of its opening sections, some Crusaders who are returning to England from their exploits refer to their Muslim opponents as “followers of Mahound”. It took me a couple of readings to figure out that name, but by process of elimination ‘Mahound’ could only have been a stand-in for Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. As an Indian, I have grown used to Europeans garbling names, but this was a new one, and it did not seem to make any linguistic sense, so I did a bit of digging around.

It turns out that ‘Mahound’ was an insult coined by Christians to refer to Muhammad, who they believed was either some kind of demon or false prophet. (Later, Martin Luther would refer to Muhammad as “a devil and first-born child of Satan”; these insults are non-denominational, since you can find Luther’s references in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, which by now has mellowed its criticism to insinuate that Muhammad was an epileptic whose fits were interpreted by credulous Arabs as divine interventions.) The term ‘Mahound’ was close enough to the name, while still allowing it to be spoken in a fashion that would split it into two words of English, ‘m’ hound’—or ‘my hound’.

This type of thing was par for the course with such conflicts, and insults were the least of the Crusades’ horrors, which included the 1204 sacking of Constantinople, a Greek Orthodox city of Christians, and the dispossession and killing of Jews in whichever city they were encountered. During the First Crusade, after the 1098 siege of the Syrian city of Ma’arra and its surrender on the promise of safe passage, the Crusaders slaughtered all its inhabitants. So far, so unsurprising; such things happen. What happened afterwards usually does not. The Crusaders had not planned for the winter, and found themselves out of food. After the dogs ran out, they were reduced to feeding off the corpses of the unfortunate city’s residents.


Let’s just say the Crusades weren’t a good time for inter-cultural relations. So I wasn’t sure what Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) was channelling so many years later in his use of that term. Maybe it was about the time that he was writing in; Ivanhoe was published in the 19th century, when European power was at its height and concern for other cultures was not. If Native Americans, Zulus, Xhosas and Aborigines could be eliminated, or penned into colonies, it hardly mattered if a few insults were used by a writer celebrating European culture. Even the great humanist Charles Dickens once ranted about killing any native he could lay his hands on during the Indian Uprising of 1857.


Unfortunately, this is exactly the tradition that Salman Rushdie has mined in The Satanic Verses. In this novel, the character based on Prophet Muhammad is referred to as Mahound. Though this narrative of 7th century Arabia is presented to readers as a modern-day character’s dream, it features a brothel of women with names of the Prophet’s wives. There is also the title’s allusion to idolatrous verses supposedly included in early drafts of the Quran and later excised, an alleged ‘scandal’ that has long been used in arguments to suggest that Muhammad’s inspirations were merely a cover for political gain. These are all standard tropes of a tradition of European contempt for Islam.

Maybe Rushdie was trying to redefine or transform them, but just as African-Americans are likely to react negatively to racist words or tropes of standard usage, literature or not, it is no surprise that many Muslims who have actually read the book find his artistic attempts overwhelmed by petty insults.


Rushdie’s response to his critics is largely that these insults should not count, and that his talent and genius is such that this ‘particular accumulation of words’ should be defended.

Of course, all writers are shielded by freedom of expression. This is not dependent on genius, and it incorporates the right to offend.

Consider the principal proposition of Islam and its testament of faith: ‘No god except the God, [and] Muhammad is the messenger of God.’ This statement could be offensive to all polytheists and atheists, or to anybody else who wants to take offence. Should I, then, not be allowed to say it? Conversely, if I am offended by people who contradict or reject it, should they be forced to keep their opinion to themselves just to preserve my peace of mind?

Of course not. All literature has the freedom to offend. All speech does. Otherwise, there will be none because there will always be somebody who could be offended.

Yet, in using terms of offence, it is wise to acknowledge it as such. Mirza Rafi Sauda, the great 18th century Urdu poet, would routinely pile insults on the excessive religiosity of court clerics. Even religious literature may have insults. Take Naz Khialvi’s lyrics of Tum Ek Gorakh Dhanda Ho (You are a Puzzle), for example, which features several rationalist arguments against religion: that it is based on non-evidence, takes lack of proof as proof, is full of contradictions, and celebrates caprice and irrationality even as God shows next to no concern for his most ardent followers. And yet, this qawwali is one of the most celebrated songs ever performed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It’s traditional, after all, no matter how irreverent.

Other insults might have different outcomes. If I were to write a novel today about a fictional Chief Minister of UP and use a derogatory term for somebody of a ‘lower’ caste, would that cause offence? Of course I would have the right to do so by the principle of freedom of expression, but would it be in good taste? Would it be fine for me to ask others to defend my right to use such terms of insult on the argument of having written a great work of art, regardless of what anybody understands of it? And wonder aloud why anybody should be offended?

Come on, that’s a joke. If you are going to use insults, be brave, call yourself Zatalli, and rage against the world. If you do not have the courage, please spare us your whines that you are not truly appreciated.