Down in Jungleland: Four Legs and Our Tongues

Ranjit Lal
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Name calling: Birds are equally susceptible. Thus, we have‘culture vultures’ and ullu de patthe. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

It’s astonishing, really. If someone calls us an “animal”, we think it is grossly insulting and our delicate sentiments get upset. But look at how we insult animals, who surely should have filed a million suits against us for defamation and hurting their sentiments, except that they prefer to just get on with their lives.

Take dogs, for instance. We’re taught in kindergarten, “Kutta wafadar janwar hai” — the dog is a faithful animal: And our best friend. Yet, I don’t think there’s a single Bollywood blockbuster where the hero (or villain) hasn’t at some point snarled, ‘Kutte! Kameene! (wretched dog)” and gone on to say, “Die like a dog, now!” And what about all those, “dog day” afternoons we’ve all spent? We encourage “chhupa rustam” Casanovas, by thumping them on the back and growling “you old dog, you!”

Cats don’t get away either. Gossiping girls are called “catty” and everyone loves watching a good catfight with teeth, claws and fur flying.

Then, of course, we malign the equine species. If you’re considered dumb, you’re called a “donkey” (“oye gadhe”), if stubborn, a mule (who along with donkeys will not budge on precipitous mountain trails if they sense danger), and just look at how the Americans spell the English word for backsides.

Our closest relatives, the monkeys and great apes, get a lousy deal, too. We all know what happened in a cricket match when one player allegedly called another a “monkey” (actually, something much worse). People who we think are monkeys, and ugly and uncivilised to boot, we describe as “baboons”. Call someone a chimpanzee and see what will happen to you, even though we have almost identical genetic make-ups. The goons that guard the entrances to pubs and bars and so-called VIPs are called “gorillas” — which are amongst the gentlest of animals.

Dogs apart, other canids also get a bad rap. You’re cunning and sly as a fox — granted some of them really look pretty shifty; as cowardly and venal as a jackal (who really aren’t: they’re just pragmatic and run away when they know they can’t win); ingratiating as a hyena; vicious as a wolf — which has been maligned for millennia, including in Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. (Rudyard Kipling had a good word to say, though he maligned tigers.)

You seem insensitive to other people’s feelings and sentiments and can’t give a damn about what they think of you? Well, naturally, because you have the hide of a rhino.

Reptiles, alas, are universally reviled. The poor snakes lead the pack — probably because of what ostensibly happened in the Garden of Eden. We call someone (usually behind their backs) a snake in the grass, or as one that speaks with a forked tongue if they double-cross or backstab us. All that most snakes really want to do is to take down as many rats as possible. And rats pretty much get it in the neck, too. Call someone a rat and see where that gets you! What we forget is that we estimate our chances of getting cancer based on what happens to rats when we stuff them full of carcinogens. A slick, smooth “gentleman”, cruising a five-star hotel lobby for pretty ladies is of course a “lounge lizard” and if you still believe in face-to-face communication and writing with a fountain pen, you are, of course, a dinosaur — or a fossil.

You don’t have table manners and you empty serving dishes at buffets or take part in hamburger eating competitions? Well, you’re a greedy pig, of course.

Birds are equally susceptible. Thus, we have “culture vultures” — the family is generally considered to be filthy, when, in reality, they’re among the cleanest of all birds. We seem a bit confused regarding owls: for some they’re wise, but yell “ullu de patthe (progeny of an owl)” at someone and see how much affection that gets you! We call someone who is nuts, “cuckoo” — though frankly I think cuckoos have solved the hassles of parenting in a remarkably sane way and are certainly not nuts.

If you’re slick and sharp and a well-dressed con-person, you are, of course, a shark and if you’re cunning and double-dealing, you are a weasel.
Even insects are part of the (un)fair game: if you’re despised and reviled, you are a cockroach — though they’re going to be the only guys surviving a nuclear holocaust, and if you’re an airhead who flits from one cocktail party to another, you’re a social butterfly.

For writers to be politically correct and not use the names of animals derogatorily in their work will be an elephantine task.

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher