What the slutty city did to the Queen’s language
A few years back I visited Kulgacchia, a small town roughly fifty kilometres southwest of Calcutta. It’s probably the only place in all of West Bengal where the traditional ritual of the rice harvesting festival is turned into a major community event. I was there for one such festival.
It drew monstrous crowds. Women from neighbouring villages arrived with their entourage as if on a Chaucerian pilgrimage. Next to the giant cauliflower, club-size horse radishes and the shining irrigating tractor — beacons of the magical effects of technology in a still-largely agrarian society — were a series of tableaux featuring crude clay models, shrunk by twenty-five percent compared to average human dimensions on display.
Someone said, “Dyakh, dyakh, amaader scene?” (translation: ‘Oh look, isn’t that familiar?’). It was a reedy young woman with a huge child perched on her hip and two more huddled around her knee. She was trying to draw the attention of her friend, who I imagined was another harried mother and housewife like herself who took the rap from their abusive husbands as a matter of routine, assuming it came with the territory of having a man in charge of their lives.
The tradition of adapting English words as part of Bengali colloquial speech is at least two-hundred-years old. A maverick group of freethinkers who called themselves “Young Bengal” were probably the first generation of Bengali Anglophiles who started using English as the third-word default in common conversation. At any rate they were the most visible English users in 1830s Calcutta. Tutored in liberal western ideas at Hindu College (now Presidency University) by Henry Louis Vivian Derozio from 1826 to 1831, this precocious and radicalized set would throw English words at the conservative Hindu high priests to annoy and confuse them. Sometimes they went slightly overboard. Their attempts to liberate bigoted followers of Hindu rituals took the form of schoolboy pranks. For instance, they would throw alcohol and beef inside the courtyards of practising Hindus, who lived in perpetual fear of defiling themselves even if they were to inadvertently step on the shadows of these offending objects.
If the provocateurs of Young Bengal were still around, they would probably be happy to see that the Bengali-speaking people have moved on to embrace a more inclusive and egalitarian culture since the mid-19th century. Words from the Queen’s language have been internalised by the working-class — mostly by unschooled women who commute to the city on a daily basis from the small towns of Bengal — popping up every now and then in the only language they speak. They speak a hybrid of an earthy, unrefined version of Bengali, sprinkled with Hindi and English words, which gradually and involuntarily seeped into their language from prolonged exposure to a metropolitan culture. Over the years, however, words borrowed from the English lexicon and made part of conversational Bengali have assumed a strange afterlife. Like an errant schoolboy, English words adapted as part of Bengali colloquial speech tend to go astray, moving away from its intended meaning in the parent language. For example, when the Kulgacchia housewife used ‘scene’, the word represented a reality that she experienced on a daily basis as opposed to someone who would say, “David Bowie is not my scene, I’m more into Amy Winehouse.”
Another rather hard-hitting use of ‘scene’ in Bengali vocabulary is by following a word with a negative, as in “Kono scene nei”, which means “no scene at all”, but the phrase can have a variety of meanings, such as “nothing doing”, “count me out of this” or “sorry, it’s not going to happen”. Similar to unpaired words, ruthless or dishevelled, for example — words in which the prefix or suffix seem to imply that taking them out and adding another with the opposite meaning might result in an antonym but doesn’t – the idea of “scene nei” too is defined by what it is not.
‘Border’ is a particularly loaded word in colloquial Bengali speech, — a bit like “scene nei” in the sense that it is brought up, almost always, in the context of it being crossed, i.e. negating its existence. It’s only by defying, resisting or transgressing against the idea of a border that it becomes relevant. When a woman says, “aami kintu border cross-kora meye” (translation: “mind you, I’m a woman who crossed the border from Bangladesh to India”), she is using the act of crossing as if it were a weapon — as seen recently in the marvellously-evocative and disarmingly-realistic film Phoring, directed by Indranil Roychowdhury. It’s as if surviving the unmentionable hardships of illegal immigration made her tougher and more desperate, and also ruthless to a degree that a legitimate resident of India — unexposed to the possibility of rape, robbery, deceit and arrest, if not plain bloody murder, by the sentinels of territorial safekeeping along that crossing — could hardly ever match up to.
Those who crossed over from the east to the Indian half of divided Bengal during the first of the two major waves of mass migration (an estimated 3 million  in 1947 at the time of the Partition of India, and again over 8 million  at the time of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971) would identify themselves as ‘refugees’ on a turf they had, technically, as much right to as the next Indian citizen. The new settlements they eventually moved into — typically rattan and bamboo structures erected on uncemented floors, with water hyacinths growing in the adjacent swamp drooping over the mud steps to the porch — were christened ‘colonies’. Someone who either grew up in a squatter colony in 1950s and 60s Calcutta, or relocated to it from a refugee camp, would be expected to have spunk and resilience to match her counterparts in East Harlem. At least that’s what the term ‘coloni’r meye’ (colony girl) implied. Displacement and the subsequent shocks experienced along the road to a new unknown had helped them shed some of the womanly inhibitions they were raised with. Now these women were after the jobs and eligible men that the nice girls who were born and brought up on the right side of the border had been groomed to acquire. An example is the go-getter Gita in Ritwik Ghatak’s film Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-capped Star, 1960) who goes on to steal her ever-supportive, self-sacrificing older sister Nita’s boyfriend. Although Nita herself was also an émigré, she hadn’t been as quick to adapt to the competitive temperament associated with a colony girl’s psyche.
The desperation in women who cross over from the other side is perennial as their battle to adjust is relentless. The theme of illegal migration resurfaced a few years back in the wake of the Nandigram crisis. The West Bengal government’s attempt to turn over 14,000 acres of farmland to the Indonesian Salim Group to build a special economic zone did not go down too well with the people who depended on that green patch of land for their livelihood. They resisted by scooping out the earth, creating a dry moat, and turning Nandigram into a well-fortified island in an attempt to keep out the ambassadors of industry, and the red bandanna-wearing men on motorbikes posted by the ruling Left to facilitate the land resumption effort.
The increasing number of women molested on the streets of Calcutta is, of course, to be blamed on the randi-‘cutting’ lipstick some of them wear when they go out. ‘Cutting’ could be a superbly trenchant — cutting-edge, if you like — word when used in Bengali. In the Bengali language , ‘cutting’ could exist on its own, as a gerund, as in “You two have a similar cutting, are you related?” Or it could be a suffix to a compound word, used as an adjective — a “faltu-cutting chhele” (a two-bit rascal lacking the ability to do anyone real harm), for example.
I have a thing for the word randi though. It’s a Hindi swear word, meaning a hooker — a name I have been called on the streets of Calcutta by irascible auto-rickshaw drivers more often than I can bring myself up to believe. The arbitrariness with which the label is slapped on women who step out of their homes and into spaces traditionally taken to be male domains in India might be disturbing if one took this to be an index of the nation’s moral health. There is in fact nothing all that ‘arbit’ (as tech school students like to call a college test paper they don’t like, believing it to be a reflection of the paper-setter’s whimsy) about calling a woman one doesn’t know a slut. In Calcutta, any woman getting in the way of the men who cannot wait to get what they’re after is potentially a whore.
Randi, in the western context, carries almost the exact opposite meaning of the Hindi swear word. The Urban Dictionary describes randi as “the most beautiful, funny, caring, loving, understanding person in the world”. She’s the ideal bride who stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, the ‘homely’ sort of girl ready to trade a career so that she can raise children and never look her mother-in-law in the eye, an attribute that ‘foreign-returned’ IT professionals seem to look for in the matrimonial columns. But then she probably won’t cut it if she were homely (i.e. unattractive) in the looks department as well, since every Indian man with a steady income is entitled to a trophy wife. They usually get one.
Randi brings to mind the word’s homonym randy. It’s also possible to read it as a shortened pet name for random (as one contributor to the Urban Dictionary does). And then random in slang suggests someone who tries too hard to stand out in a crowd and ends up a bit pathetic for her efforts — a character who is both despicable and worth pitying. Stir these ideas together and what emerges from the pot is the smoky image of a shrill, slightly-miserable streetwalker, a bit desperate for attention. Men are drawn to her for the raw, in-your-face sex appeal and also despise her for that very reason.
Randi/randy is the woman whom Calcuttans love without necessarily caring for her when they visit her in the “pros quarters” of Bowbazar, Sonagacchi, Khiddirpore and Kalighat. Shortening prostitute to ‘pros’ is meant to be a semi-camouflage, as if it was a cuss word, whispered quickly in hushed tones.
Bengali writers seem to be particularly fond of prostitutes though, most notably the novelist Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938). The archetype of the good prostitute who conceals a tear-bathed heart of gold underneath the flimsy sequinned fabric and cheap, abrasive make-up that she is made to wear was Bengal’s major export to the mainstream Indian film industry in Bombay until fairly recently, almost a 100 years after Chattopadhyay wrote them. In Rajsekhar Basu’s (1880-1960) short story, Birinchi Baba, (later adapted into a hugely-entertaining satirical film on a pair of hustlers by Satyajit Ray, The Holy Man, 1965), a character flipping through a stack of novels finds each one of these to be about a “virtuous and chaste courtesan”. Despite Basu’s obvious sarcasm, the comment is probably an accurate reflection of the mid-C20 popular fiction scene in Bengal.
While the figure of the prostitute is consecrated in Bengali literature, the real-life women who are randomly called whores on Calcutta’s streets are often looked upon as no better than excitable vaginas begging for punishment. The naked, unfinished back of the otherwise extravagantly embellished Durga idol that Bengalis seem to worship with exaggerated and unrestrained devotion during the fortnight-long autumn festival is emblematic of this contradiction. It is informed by the same ostrich-like duplicity that makes Calcuttans use their rooftops as storages for things they do not want and cannot let go of. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s astute take on Calcutta’s ugly rooftops in ‘The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’ — “broken furniture, smashed earthenware and pieces of torn canvas or sack’ which makes ‘the irregular upper surface of Calcutta … more jagged still by the edges and points of this junk” – published in 1951 applies equally well to the present scenario. Spiffy new high-rise buildings shoot up next to factory shades, looking out over the dark, corrugated asbestos roofing and the irrepressible plant life cracking up and spreading across the lime-and-lichen coated walls. Tattered piss-stained quilts are hung out to dry on the cast iron railing around the mausoleum of Job Charnock, almost as if to dispute and mock the claim that the East India Company trader had helped in laying the foundations of what grew into the city of Calcutta, when he bought three villages and settled down on the banks of the River Ganga in 1690. 
Such glaring instances of visual pollution do not seem to add “gamaxin in the prestige” of Calcutta, as its Bengali-speaking residents like to put it, although the very same people reacted sharply when the city was labelled a ‘nightmare’ or as ‘dying’ (as two of India’s prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi, did, forty years apart, displaying an atavistic exasperation with a place whose chaotic nature did not lend itself to easy solutions). Especially since ‘prestige’ is more highly valued than its rarely used Bengali counterpart in Calcutta-speak. It is as precious and fragile as the “slim figure” that most Bengali-speaking women crave but only a few manage to hold on to for long.
 Banerjee, Sumanta, ‘The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta’; Seagull, 1990.
 The exact figures are difficult to pin down. PN Luthra’s book ‘Rehabilitation, Publications Division, New Delhi’, 1972, says a little under 5 million migrated from East Pakistan to India between 1946 and 1964.
 Dasgupta, Subhoranjan, ‘Unwelcome Now’; The Hindu, July 30, 2000.
 Gupta, Monobina, ‘Didi: A Political Biography’; HarperCollins India, 2011.
 ‘Looking back at Khejuri: Our men, their men – the straw men’, article published in Sanhati website on April 16, 2008.
 Chaudhuri, Nirad C., ‘The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’; MacMillan, 1951.
 I. B. Watson, ‘Job Charnock (1630-1693)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Chitralekha Basu is a writer of fiction, translator and singer of Tagore songs. Her book, ‘Sketches by Hootum the Owl: a Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta’, was published by Stree-Samya in 2012 with a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri. She is also published in The Caravan magazine and Asia Literary Review. She is writing a series of essays for China Daily. She lives in Hong Kong.