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Playing by the new ‘matlabi’ rules

160630 - Oped - Matlabi Illustration: Keshav

160630 - Oped - Matlabi Illustration: Keshav   | Photo Credit: keshav

The practice of politics today is reducing all the big challenges to the most narrow-minded interpretation.

Words give reality life. Some do so better than others offering nuance as in twenty shades of grey. They do not just describe reality, they create it, giving it colour, depth, and form. But all I am really interested in here is talking about just one word which reveals a great deal about India. The word tells us about its politics, its social self, and its communities. No, that word is not jugaad. It’s close, but the word is matlabi.

It’s not just ‘jugaad’

As a word, matlabi has taken residence in different language zones, certainly in both Hindi and Indian English, and in other Indian languages as well, conveying meaning to different language groups. In mapping matlabi’s journey we discover a rich trade in words between the Indian Bhasas and Indian English, how crossover is easy, especially for the younger generation who borrow and adapt as they move from one language zone to another carrying words that they seek to domesticate. For example, I am always charmed when the female voice at the other end of an unsolicited marketing call in Delhi, as she rattles off in Hindi, responds when I say I do not wish to continue the call with a “no issue sir, have a good day”. In which language is she thinking? So if Indian English gives to Hindi “tension” (with the “i” being silent) which English does as it gains adherents, Hindi responds with “guru” to establish, in this trade, a status equivalence.



Peter Ronald deSouza


Language growth and new contingencies make such democratic borrowings necessary. They tell us much about our dynamic world. So we have “Question Hour” for the netas who debate the status of Hindi in Parliament, and “Dalal Street” for our stock brokers betting on derivatives, while protesters against globalisation are content with “ chakka jam”. As it travels, the word matlabi accumulates many meanings from the most benign to the most diabolical. This only shows how tagda the Indian language scene in India has become.

The word matlab comes from the Arabic and gives us phrases such as mujhe iska kya matlab or iska matlab kya hai, where the former refers to the absence of purpose while the latter seeks out the meaning of an offer. These are its innocent usages. But when the ‘i’ is added it takes a diabolical turn, as is always the case when the infernal ‘i’ intrudes in any situation. Matlabi now acquire dimensions that are cunning and devious. So it becomes “don’t be matlabi” as disapproval of selfish behaviour. Being able to use the word implies the existence of a shared norm between the persons to the relationship which could be that of a parent and a child, friend and neighbour, teacher and student, and even lovers. A matlabi lover, though, is both a moron and an oxymoron. Being matlabi threatens the trust necessary for any relationship. Matlabi, in addition to selfish behaviour, also refers to the disposition of a person as in “she is matlabi” — that is, not to be trusted. This is more than being selfish.

India has become a matlabi society. As the ‘i’ has begun to redefine social relationships, and as the inner logic of globalisation is making us more acquisitive in terms of status, power, and the yearning for consumption goods, India, as a society, appears to distance itself more and more from the values of seva, sarvodaya and trusteeship of Gandhi. Can we imagine a Bhoodan movement taking place in India today? There is a story of a rich farmer not wanting to meet Vinoba Bhave because he would have to part with some of his land. Surprised by this reluctance, his colleague asked him why he was so hesitant since land donation was voluntary and he didn’t have to give away any land if he did not want to. The farmer replied that this was exactly the problem. Vinobaji was so persuasive that he would end up giving land voluntarily. Bhoodan is not possible anymore today. A newspaper report titled “Land sharks gobble up Bhoodan plots in Orissa”, of March 29, 2010, tells us how the “land mafia are conniving with lower rung revenue officials to acquire plots from persons who were actually not entitled to sell them”.

All about land

In its monitoring of land alienation, whether of forest dwellers, tenants, small farmers, or wakf property, the Indian state has become matlabi. This is such a common story that it doesn’t need elaboration. Because we speak in English, we call it “corruption”, thereby suggesting deviation from a norm, a deviation which can be remedied. It is actually much more than deviation. Remedy is difficult since it is the new public culture. An indication of the spread of this matlabi culture is the increase in the number of holy places that have come up, especially across urban India, and the number of people who visit them. Conscience does not sit comfortably with a matlabi lifestyle, at least in the beginning. And so god has to be bribed.

From land politics, to environmental regulation, to urban planning, to banking, to academic administration, matlabi is the new keyword. How does one explain the toppers scandal in the Bihar examinations? What other explanation is there for high NPAs especially of public sector banks? Can any other word be used to describe an academic vision for the country being designed primarily by bureaucrats most of whom have not headed an academic institution? And of course tweeting sympathy for the gay people killed in the Orlando shooting while we still have Section 377 on the statute books which criminalises homosexuality?

What does it mean to be a matlabi society? Matlabi promotes disdain for the rule of law. It diminishes trust so essential for well-functioning institutions and for everyday social interactions. It allows book releases in London where persona non grata can be invited and then, when a controversy breaks out, the invitation can be denied. It rewards the fixer and the gambler who bet on outcomes which give, in the short term, maximum benefit to individuals. A matlabi culture produces a matlabi person who regards everyone else as matlabi and hence adjusts her behaviour accordingly. Imagine a matlabi doctor, teacher, autodriver, doodhwala, and lawyer. We can easily imagine such persons since we deal with them every day as trust declines and we carry the “ tenson” of distrust when we go for a health check-up and apply for a job or a driving licence. We need intermediaries to help us negotiate our way through such a matlabi society. This may seem a clever point to make, and it could even be funny, if it was not so serious with respect to the consequences it spells for the common good and the public interest for these values now do not drive social behaviour as they did in another age. They have no place in our new India.

Questions we must answer

We need to study why this has come to pass. Why is it that the culture of being matlabi has moved from the margins of our social existence to the centre of our social life? Whatever happened to seva or sarvodaya or trusteeship?

The answer seems to lie in the practice of politics. The Congress after Nehru and the BJP now have mastered the art of being matlabi. The talk about the migration of Hindus in a Muslim-dominated area is based on half-truths and fake data but a party president repeats it to get electoral mileage. The affidavit filed before the Election Commission, at the time of elections, is a dishonest document with regard to assets and educational qualifications, but it is filed anyway and the CEC colludes. Nobody has been disqualified for wrong affidavits. Create a frenzied nationalism to deal with critics of government and portray them as anti-national and their criticism will be lost in the din of patriotism. Talk up India’s growth story while people struggle for livelihood and arhar dal and those who go to bed hungry will drop off the national data debate. And ramp up the talk about our great democracy while encouraging the kleptocrats, through whisper, to defame the RBI governor so that a man of honour finds that he cannot stay longer in public office. And let loose the vigilantes. Matlabi rules. And that is why the government has to invest so much in advertising.

Peter Ronald deSouza is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. He holds the Dr. S. Radhakrishnan Chair of the Rajya Sabha for 2015-17. Views are personal.

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 4:15:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Playing-by-the-new-%E2%80%98matlabi%E2%80%99-rules/article14465791.ece

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