Paiyas and Kodakas

Growing up, I found that a lot of my non-Kannadiga friends took great pleasure in using the words “maga” and “magane” (both mean “son”). For a long time I didn’t understand what was so pleasurable in calling someone “son”. Wasn’t it normal in other languages as well (though Tamil prefers Macha (brother-in-law) ) ?

It took two incidents, separated by six years (and the latter of the two happened ten years ago), for me to understand this. It had to do with abuses.

I remember visiting a Tamilian friend at her home sometime in 2004. There were a few other friends there, and everyone who was there except me was Tamilian (and this is a 20 year-old problem – people randomly assume I’m Tamilian and speak to me in Tamil). So the host’s mother, in the course of the conversation, would break off into Tamil, and when the discussion was about some boys, would talk about “this paiyya” or “that paiyya”.

I remember trying to suppress a chuckle every time she said “paiyya” (I’ll come to the reason in a bit), but largely managed to keep a straight face through the conversation.

Six years later I was visiting my then-girlfriend, now-wife. Pinky’s mother is Gult (technically her father is also Gult, but his ancestors came to Karnataka so long ago that for all practical purposes they’re dig). On the day I visited, Pinky’s aunt was also visiting, and Pinky’s mother and aunt were talking (in Gult) about some boys. And they kept referring to these boys as “koDaku”.

Again I had to suppress chuckles, for the same reason I had suppressed chuckles when my friend’s mother kept saying “paiyya” six years before. And at the same time I understood why my non-Kannadiga friends took such pleasure in saying “magane”. It has to do with abuses.

When you learn a new language as a teenager, it is fairly standard to start off by first learning the swearwords in that language. For some strange reason, South Indians revel in abusing one another’s mothers. And so the popular abuses in all South Indian languages follow this template.

In Kannada, you have “bOLi magane” (son of a bitch) and “sULe magane” (son of a prostitute). Tamil has “thEvaDiya paiyya” (son of a prostitute again). Telugu has “lanja koDaka” (son of a prostitute, once again) and, rather fascinatingly for the amateur anthropologist, “donganA koDaka” (son of a thief).

And in Telugu and Tamil, the word for “boy” is also used interchangeably for “son”, and it’s the same word that appears in the above swear-phrases (Kannada is a little bit different – the word for “boy” is used for “son”, but the swearwords all have the word that is exclusively used for “son”).

Now you know where this is going.

In normal teenage or college conversation it’s not common to talk about people’s sons. So if you’re a Kannadiga who’s only learnt swearwords in Telugu or Tamil, you would have heard the words “koDaka” and “paiyya” in only that context. You would have never heard these words in isolation in normal conversation, separated from the prefixes that make them the swearing qualities.

So because “thevaDiya paiyya” is a swearphrase, I had assumed that both words in it are independently swearwords. And so I got shocked that my friend’s mother kept casually saying “paiyya” in the course of normal conversation, and my (extremely paavam/sadhu) friends didn’t flinch.

It is the same with “koDaka” – having appeared in TWO swearphrases I knew, I assumed it was a swearword, and was shocked to see my would-be mother-in-law use it in a casual conversation with her sister.

I imagine it is the same with “magane” – for non-Kannadigas for whom it’s just part of a swearphrase, it is effectively a swearword. And so, when they use the word, it’s as if they are swearing. And that explains their glee in uttering the word.

Kannada has another son-based swearword. “baDDi maga”, which translates to “son of interest” (as in the interest you pay on a loan). I’ve never understood the logic behind that one.