Be Funny by Subhadra Jayaraman

I am eternally in awe of peoples’ choices of words and actions when they are put in angering situations. It is a delight to see them choose very common words, sauté it on their tongues and come up with the most marvellous explosive tirade from words as innocent as potato or moon.

Broomstick (thodapakattai), the planet Saturn (shaniyane!), banshee (pisaasu) – these were some common household terms used quite liberally by my mom, and quite a few other moms, dads, and aunts across the spectrum of Tamil families. The best part was the versatility of these words – it could be used for the really loud, always shirtless neighbor man; the evil scheming vamp in the TV series who plots to poison her daughter-in-law; or your daughter when she doesn’t pay attention. There was, believe it or not, divinity in these words – their significance went beyond just the utterance, it was the pitch and frequency of the call, the tone, the presence of potential objects that can be flung – like a book, a rolled up newspaper, or sometimes the very broomstick being referred to. When I say divinity, I mean that the impact would be almost spiritual – a few sparrows will fly out of bushes, goals would be accomplished, hearts would be lighter, and minds would be cleared. You can even distinguish the intensity and target of this outburst by paying attention to the syllables being emphasized. Elongation of the ending vowels (e.g. shaniyaneeeey) means that the target is the daft child who is so engrossed in TV they can’t hear their mom calling them. Pointed emphasis on the consonants (thoDDaPPaKKaTTa) is a measure of the amount of anger they represent, and this is when we need to be careful of the fling-able items in their hands at the time.

My grandfather was in the army as a civilian for a few decades (we all know that one person in our extended family who has been in the army at least in catering), and not one to go down to the levels of calling someone a broomstick, so he would wield his anger and vocabulary with the same intensity when he decided to scold someone.  The politician on that day’s news is an imbecile scoundrel (said with a scowl on the face), the boys who pushed his grandson while playing on the ground are uncouth hooligans (yelled while wagging a finger at the said boys), the fielder at the slip who dropped the catch was an overpaid lout (said while slapping his forehead), and the autowaala who charged the old man 30 rupees extra was a rogue, thug, and rascal (more dangerous scowling). Although rascal could also be used for his own grandson, typically after ‘clumsy’ or ‘awkward’ when he drops a glass of water or upturns the pot of rice – it depends on the surge of words at any given time. Sometimes when he shakes his head at you and goes ‘hopeless’, you know that you are doomed because even he couldn’t come up with a respectable expletive to redeem your actions.

Then there were my teachers – they were a vibrant combination of anger boiling just under the surface and the extreme pressure to remain civil while dealing with a group of utterly brainless babbling baboons. The commonly used phrase is ‘sailor’s mouth’ when referring to a person who utters strong profanities, but I really think it should be replaced with ‘teacher’s minds’. The number of troubles in the typical day of a sailor does not even hold a candle to what a teacher has to deal with on a daily basis. The sailor has the ability to shout out his expletives into the ocean air, but the teacher has to politely swallow them while practically evaporating with the heat of the rage. I have had teachers who scolded in Sanskrit out of frustration (called a student navaneetham which means venna which means butter, to signify that the student was dull). I have had teachers who would shake in fury and condemn all of us to failure openly and frequently because we could not even write the first two lines of code after 5 months of classes. I have had teachers who would try very hard to ignore the miscreants in class and in the process speak really loudly and would get louder and louder with each sentence, and finally unable to shriek any further, give up, scream at the chaotic idiots, stumble over their own words, make it much worse, and rush out of the class as soon as the bell rings. My heart goes out to all of them. For they may look and sound like Darth Vader when they’re angry but are actually Jar Jar Binks at heart.

Anger is one of the greatest emotional expressions. I am not sure if these various well-meaning, harmless verbal outlets during my childhood taught me to be more attentive, be less naughty, or be more civilized and respectful; but they sure did fill my ridiculous brain with absurd memories.

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