Down in Jungleland: Call Me by Another Name

One day, we’ll be hauled up for the kind of names we have given to animals around us. Let us see what kind of case they may have and what arguments the defence (ourselves) may come up with to counter them.

Now that animals are beginning to be given “human” status, it’s just a matter of time before they take us to court alleging “hurt sentiments” for the way in which we have been referring to them. Let us see what kind of case they may have and what arguments the defence (ourselves) may come up with to counter them.

In countless Hindi films, there will always be a scene where the hero spits “kutte–kameene!” Which, to say the least, is derogatory to dogs. For going into battle, we exclaim, “let loose the dogs of war!” When, as dogs will claim, all that most of them really want to do is to wag their tails and lick our faces and climb into our laps. Worse are references to the female of the species: the word (too strong to use in a decent newspaper like this) is used as a total insult. We might come up with the following argument to show that this may only be half the story and that the situation is not nearly as bad as is made out to be:

What is one of the first things millions of tiny-tots all over the country are made to chant in their classrooms every day? Kutta wafadar janwar hain. Woh ghar ka rakhwali karta hai! (The dog is a faithful animal. It guards the house). And, of course, we can point out that ever since we domesticated it, the dog has been known as “man’s best friend.” Also, check out the many beautiful shapes and sizes and colours we have bred them in! Does that not show love and devotion to the species?

But then, take the case of the poor donkey. We call someone stupid, a “donkey” or worse, a “dumb ass”, which is adding insult to injury. To which, I guess we might counter, “Yes, maybe we do, but we also admiringly refer to a super-strong rum or whisky as having ‘the kick of a mule!’” What better compliment can there be for the mule?

As for calling someone a silly goose, that’s done more out of affection than to insult. Like we call someone we are really fond of (because they do our bidding) a “lamb” or “kitten”. And someone who’s a scaredy cat (another animal reference) a “chicken-heart”.

But, there are references which are more difficult to defend. We insult one another by calling each other monkeys, baboons, or, chimpanzees, or, the bouncers at the pub, gorillas. Well, monkeys are undisciplined, baboons and chimpanzees do screech a lot, so they don’t really have a case, but yes, gorillas are gentle giants and not thugs.

If we find someone really slimy, we call them a weasel, someone sly and venal, a fox or vixen, someone with a big appetite a “greedy pig”. If you are devious, you are like a “snake in the grass”, and, if you are completely disgusting and despicable, you are a dirty rat or worse, cockroach! Which, the defence might argue is hugely insulting to cockroaches because they’re going to be our only successors in case of a nuclear holocaust. If you still don’t care about all this, you contemptuously snort, “I don’t give a rat’s arse!” We need to be careful here because apparently we shared 99 per cent of our genes with the rodents.

So, it does look like we have been insulting our non-human brethren pretty badly. But we have arguments of our own to show that this is not always the case.

When someone shows courage, we say he or she is “brave and strong as a lion or tiger”. A brainy person is as wise as an owl (which actually doesn’t have such a high IQ), an athlete is swift as a falcon, or runs like an impala, and, a world leader is as powerful as an eagle. The dove is a symbol of peace — though here again we seem to have gone off track here because doves and pigeons fight like mad. A lovely girl may have doe-eyes, fringed with the eyelashes of a giraffe and may trip about as delicately as a gazelle.

And then, of course, there’s been our love affair with automobiles, motorbikes and planes, so many of which have been named after animals we admire. There’s the classic Ford Mustang, the powerful AC Cobra, the Ford Falcon, the Jaguar, the Dodge Cougar, and the one and only, much-beloved, Volkswagen Beetle. Also called the love-bug! In the skies, we have Hornets, Falcons, Harriers, Hawks and Thunderbirds.

There is, perhaps, one thing we ought not to say at all costs when one of us throws a silly tantrum. We must now refrain from snapping, “Oh for God’s sake, stop behaving/eating like an animal!” Because do remember, a lot of these self-same animals (rats included) are also worshipped by many of us, so sentiments can be hurt all over again…

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