City Life – Swearwords, Walled City
Gaalis in the galis.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
An elderly man sits all day long outside a long-dead chai shop in Old Delhi’s Mohalla Qabristan. His gestures are courtly, his Urdu pronunciation is flawless, and his every second gupshup sentence that issues out from his venerable lips is laced with a gaali. Most citizens in the vicinity credit the friendly man to have a vocabulary extremely fluent in traditional as well as unconventionally creative swearwords.
Gaalis transcend Delhi’s social divides. The offensive words circulating in the back alleys of Mahipalpur exercise the same freedom of movement in the genteel Mayfair Gardens. The Mohalla Qabristan gentleman is different. Many of his gaalis are linguistically playful, the shape of the sounds so melodious that those among us not well-versed with Urdu might think of these insults as something poetic. It is tempting to share one such gaali with you, dear reader, but its compromising double entendre makes the word unfit to be printed.
Indeed, a Mohalla Qabristan shop owner recalls his late father who would often say that “Zubaan se kuch bhi kehdo, lekin likho izzat se (say whatever, but write with grace).” The shop owner remembers the father tell him of a visitor from Calcutta who came to Old Delhi “because he had heard great things about the gaalis in Dilli ki zuban, and wanted to hear those personally.”
A middle-aged drycleaner, nearby, links gaalis to Dilli ka mizaj, and regrets that their use has drastically decreased since his boyhood days. “During nok-jhok, we Delhiwale start with halki gaalis, and if the squabbling doesn’t stop, we resort to bhari gaalis, listening to which might give you a stomach upset.” The drycleaner fondly mentions a long-departed Walled City poet renowned for his stock of gaalis. Once, while reciting his poetry in the annual Republic Day mushaira in the Red Fort, the poet became so irritated by the continually interrupting “wah wah” of the applauding audience that he abruptly turned his back to the public, jutted out his posterior, referring to it with an unparliamentary term — in the august presence of Prime Minister Nehru.
Following a little persuasion, the aforementioned shop owner condescends to explain the etymology of a relatively light gaali. The swearword is common outside the Walled City too, but the shop owner gives his version of its Purani Dilli origins. “When I was a child, our streets would quickly get deserted after sunset. Some streets would be notorious for being haunted by bhootni, or female ghosts, and we would call the people living in those streets, ‘bhootni ke’.” The shop owner lowers his voice, revealing that there is actually a street named Gali Bhootni Wali.
That lane happens to be a shout away from Mohalla Qabristan. This sunny noon it is as dark as the twilight. Walking to his home, the last building in Gali Bhootni Wali, marketeer Yasir (see photo) patriotically defends the honour of his street and of his fellow street dwellers. “Haan, it is callled Gali Bhootni Wali. Nahin, there is no bhootni here. Nahin, nobody here hurls gaalis.”