Disabusing the word “saala”

Urban Dictionary defines it as:

Saala is the Hindi term for your wife’s brother. However it’s most commonly used as an insult, with the implication being that you are sleeping with the insulted persons sister.

Interesting, no? We would proudly proclaim to the world that we have a family-oriented culture where we respect our elders. However, we often forget to put the asterisk on this misleading statement and to print the complete truth in fine print.

No problem! This little oversight can be easily remedied.

We, the Indians, have a family-oriented culture where we respect our elders if the family is not from the girl’s side in a marriage and the elders are not tainted by their connection to the accursed race of women.

There, I fixed it for you. Otherwise, if this is not true, how can you explain that Hindi-speakers’ favorite PG-13 cuss word stands for brother-in-law (or sister-in-law, depending on the situation)?

Now, I am not a blind Western bhakt, who will whitewash the West while throwing mud at my own culture, excuse the puns. Like any other die-hard Hollywood fan, I am all too familiar with the English “motherfucker” and “son of a bitch”, that would match well with “maderchod” and “bhosdike”.

But, there are some things that Indians have always been better at. And, giving an abusive connotation to an innocent relationship so that we can have more gynocentric cuss words also happens to be something we are better at. After all, shouting at someone, “Fuck off, brother-in-law” in English doesn’t exactly have the same feel, right?

The entire thing can lead to some awkward situations. Being simply introduced by someone as saala can be a bit insulting, even if you are in fact a “saala” by marriage to that person. People will try to make it “saale-ji” to wash out the bad taste the word leaves in our mouth.

To top it off, a woman’s elder brother or sister will always be stuck with a label that has a demeaning context while a man’s younger brother or sister will be addressed by wholesome terms.

So, what can we do? The creative ones among us can perhaps come up with new words to replace “saali” and “saala”. The Anglophile can banish these words in favour of the neutral “sister-in-law” or “brother-in-law”. The powerful among us can dilute the abusive connotation of the word through media and education and rehabilitate it, as the Western feminists have tried to do with “slut” and “bitch”.

Or, we can let the words be, as badges of shame and a proof of misogynistic hypocrisy that our culture has engaged in since time immemorial. Do not be mistaken; I do not suggest inaction. This twisted use of language to put down women in yet one more way should be deplored loud and clear in the plainest language. Let their erasure serve as symbolic milestone which the people in women’s struggle will seek to achieve when they have secured for every Indian woman the right to be born, right to food, right to speak and to be heard, right to education and health, right not to be ogled and felt up, right to say yes like men can and right to say no like men can.

Till then, let our blood boil whenever we hear these words, let us seethe in anger and then direct that anger in more productive directions, dreaming of a day when femininity is a source of positivity, admiration and strength.