A week or two back, I might be wrong with the timeline, a news report caught my interest. A village in Kasargod district in Kerala had underwent a name-change because of its ‘obscene’ meaning. Underlining how the very same name had a different meaning to the Tulu minority residing in the village, the report elaborated that the name-change happened after an official recounted his shame in saying the word out loud to a room full of people.
Here was a linguistic conundrum, one which had a lot to do with the dignity of a majority, for lack of a better word, and the silencing of a minority. ‘Maire’ in Tulu referred to Mayoorapara, literally means a place full of peacocks. In Malayalam, however, it is a foul word which refers to male pubic hair or pubic hair, though the semantics of it hardly mattered in conversations when the word was followed by two other foul words namely. ‘thayoli’ and ‘pooru’ (Thayoli means son of a prostitute and pooru means vagina). In short, they are the holy trinity of foul words in Malayalam and hence they also have an acronym of sorts i.e. ma-tha-pu. While all of that is fascinating, this post isn’t about the semantics of foul words or its history. It is about a series of incidents that I had around the ma-tha-pu.
I learned to swear when I was 12 and had stumbled upon a range of thrillers where women swore when they were pissed off at the men. So when the time was right, I told a whole range of bullies in my class to mind their own ‘fucking’ business. This outburst was followed by immediate silence and a declaration that I was a woman who should wash her mouth. I did not think much about it then until a year later, when I found my slam book littered with the choicest form of Malayalam abuses. A ‘favourite’ remains to be this: “Adhya rathriyil ninte bharthavu potta kinattil pvc pipe kayattumbol, njangale marakaruth” Translation: On your wedding night, when your husband puts his dick (referred to as a pipe) into your hole (referred to as a damp well), do not forget us.
It is common knowledge that most foul words have essentially been repositories of misogyny and owned by men and some, over time, have been reclaimed by women or have lost its former glory as far as derogative meaning is concerned.
For instance, saying ‘fuck off’, ‘fuck you’ and ‘what the fuck’ have almost reduced the significance of the word ‘fuck’ that had once elicited loud gasps. Of course, the context and the tone matters and that is why the boys in my class decided that I needed a lesson in Malayalam abuses.
In college, the lesson happened when I was stuck in a Convent hostel. Since the hostel was already a space known for its bans and censures and curfews, it inevitably led me to doing everything that the sisters prohibited. Learning to talk dirty seemed like the first step. So from male friends, comrades (I was in SFI back then) and possible love interests, I learned to swear. It was a fascinating exercise of sorts considering how the men responded to the lessons. This wasn’t offensive to any of them. Most of them taught with a self-indulgent smile, the one which they usually gave to share their inside joke. To be blunt, it was a turn-on for them.
However, once I and my set of friends mastered the art of using these words, there was no stopping us. Either we were high on using taboo words out loud or we were equally attracted by the effect it had upon men. Months passed and in some time, the taboo words, coupled with my ‘flirting’ was spoken about in circles and a reputation was made.
Fights with men or male comrades or friends that had use of abuse words from both ends were now looked down upon specifically when the woman in question, used it with equal effect. Overnight, I became a ‘vedi’ (prostitute).
My friends at that point, who also had been eager learners in the beginning, were now ready to back off. In a letter, one of my friends told me that her marriage prospects would get affected if she hung out with me.
All of this disturbed me at that point especially when I was not aware of myself and was stuck in a place that gave reputation far more importance than it should. But negotiating this on my own was not easy back then. Imagine walking to a college knowing fully well that everyone around were talking about you, your virginity, your dirty mind and mouth. It wasn’t pleasant.
A year later, as I began my university education in Hyderabad, I breathed a sigh of relief when I met like-minded women. One of them took an instant interest in learning the same words that had turned my virgin reputation around in Kerala. Like a baby learning their first words and mouthing it with relish, she learned all the abuse words in Malayalam with glee. Then whenever the opportunity rose, by opportunity I mean, when she met other Malayali men, in groups or individually, she would tell them that she knew some Malayalam words and reel these words in quick succession. I was both embarrassed and pleased. What could be a bigger subversion than this?
When Facebook happened and brought its share of trolling and online bullying, it was inevitable that the same abuse words would once again appear, this time with even more force considering how the perpetrators could be faceless. At least more than half of the women in the Malayalam film industry found themselves to be on the receiving end of these attacks especially if one of them left their husbands or if another fell in love with a married star. A popular anchor who was also the most watched on television back then, found herself to be the target of these abuses, because she never batted an eyelid about what she wore or apologised for being around men.
These trollers were men who, cutting across class and caste, had somehow united as one single entity, ready to pounce and tame the women who had ventured away from what was the norm in Kerala. They could be married, single, with children, without children, working as high up as managers or as workers, or in the Middle-east (another Kerala, I would say) or in any other country which might boast progressive politics. They could even be your hard working ‘Suleiman and parippu vada’ comrade. Yet, all of them launched their abuses at women who were vocal with their political thoughts, any thought for that matter, and tried to trash them in as many ways as possible, all with the ownership of sharing the same language. How dare ‘our women’ disagree, flirt, abuse or even think in these online spaces that we own?
The privacy of a profile had become an added privilege as well. Fake profiles under all sorts of names emerged. Any given political organisation in Kerala or the country for that matter, had a loyal following who would take up this job of trouncing the women with valour. In Kerala, some of the women fought back. As recently, the actor who was abused for falling in love with a married star, has now filed a case against the cyber attack she faced. The anchor clicked a photograph, where she happily showed her middle finger, as response to her online abusers. A popular voice in women’s circles, gave it back to those who morphed her photographs, via the route of bad-ass abuses.
In my own household, I have never heard my father use these words. It could be that he had mastered some form of restraint when he got married. I overheard my elder brother using it with his friends as if it was a running joke between them. However, when I sat with my younger brother one day and chit-chatted with him about his college life, he informed, with a solemn face, that he stopped talking to a girl in class. “Why?”, I asked. He said, “Chechi, aval vedi annu.” Translation: She is a prostitute.
Of course I corrected him for the time being and told him in so many words that he was being misogynistic. Yet, the conversations haunts. The Malayali man who shies away at using these words before his family, uses in camaraderie with his friends and comrades, the one who brands you for using the same and the one who propelled a name change in a village are at times just one big giant façade waiting to be overthrown. All of these men come from our own homes, friend and activist circles and Facebook walls. In short, the ma-tha-pu would have perhaps had a different history had the women been using it and perhaps, idealistically, maire would have remained to mean peacock feathers or coexisted with both meanings in place.