Published June 14, 2020
After being declared ‘criminal’ by the British rulers of the day, some of Rajasthan’s nomadic tribes created secret languages because of the “stigma attached to their community”
After being declared ‘criminal’ by the British rulers of the day, some of Rajasthan’s nomadic tribes created secret languages because of the “stigma attached to their community”

Even in this age of widespread surveillance, various subcultural communities in South Asia have been successfully keeping their secrets from the outside world. Among these secrets are the many hidden tongues that several communities speak. These code languages are used mainly by criminals, merchants and the marginalised.

The history of the invention and use of a secret tongue is unclear, but one of the oldest Indian texts, the Kama Sutra — believed to have been written in the 4th century AD — recommends it as one of the 64 arts for women to master. The text even includes some techniques of encryption, as explained by particle physicist and popular science author Simon Singh in The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography.

An ancient secret lexical code that is now available in documented form is Thuggee. In his introduction to Mustalahat-i-Thuggee [A Glossary of Thuggee], Rasheed Hasan Khan, one of the most respected Urdu-language critics from India, writes that the Thuggee language had existed in India since ancient times. It was spoken by a violent group that believed in the goddess Kali. They always killed their targets before robbing them of their possessions and the dead body would then be presented as an offering to the goddess in a religious ritual.

However, Thuggee became much more widespread in the era after the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. In 1830, William Bentinck, then governor general of India, tasked Captain William Sleeman with suppressing the Thuggee community. The captain not only abolished this ‘sect’, but also wrote the Ramaseeana: Or a Vocabulary of the Peculiar Language Used by the Thugs. This is an extensive account of Thuggee beliefs, practices and their methods of killing and robbery, and includes a glossary of their secret terms.

In contemporary South Asia, secret languages are used by many criminal subgroups — burglars, thieves, pickpockets, etc. In his book Pickpockets: The Mysterious Species, former Indian police officer Krishna Kumar Gupta writes that pickpockets in India speak a secret language that is consistent across the vast country. Taash, for instance, “is a secret term used for a piece of blade.”

Many subcultures use secret languages to create cohesion within the community and to keep themselves safe from outsiders

The eighth volume of Maulvi Zafarur Rahman Dehlvi’s Farhang-i-Istalahat-i-Peshawaraan [A Glossary of Terms Used by Different Professionals] includes code words used by thieves, robbers, thugs and gamblers. Tilwa, for instance, means an infant. Phool refers to a deserted place that thieves identify by making a sign, such as a flower, where to gather and discuss a thieving plan. Every member of these criminal subgroups is trained in their particular secret language, which they use to regulate each other and to work on plots against their targets.

It is interesting to note that most of the traditional old bazaars of South Asia still maintain secret languages, with salesmen proficient in, at least, the use of code words for numbers, to which customers have no access. With no standard prices for most things in the markets, Baniyas in India, Khojas in Pakistan and Rezgars in Afghanistan and, indeed, shopkeepers in several other areas, use secret tongues to trick their customers.

Ikul, in the Khoja language, means one, for example, and tumman a hundred; these terms are still used by the shopkeepers of Rani Bazaar in Dera Ghazi Khan. Modern businesses also use secret languages; companies routinely encode their data to avoid revealing trade secrets when sending information to other companies or to their own offices in other parts of the world. Even more serious use of codes is prevalent in military and diplomatic communications.

The socio-economic web of South Asia is so fixed and, for some, so dangerous, that communities on the lowest rungs, or on the margins, spend most of their time and energy in an everyday struggle just to survive. These underprivileged communities are ostracised, stigmatised, exploited and, in some cases, even attacked and killed. For day-to-day survival, they have to be inventive. They learn submission, practise silence, create codes and keep secrets.

Some of Rajasthan’s nomadic tribes were declared criminal by the British rulers of the day and so created “a secret language because of the stigma attached to their community”, as suggested by Soutik Biswas in his BBC article ‘The Man Who “Discovered” 780 Indian Languages’. Today, there are several such communities in South Asia that live in a state of utter vulnerability. Their secret languages serve not only as a tool for protection against outsiders, but also for in-group solidarity.

Conjurers belonging to an Indian Muslim ‘low’ caste known as Maslet are “bound together by a secret language,” asserts Lee Siegel in his essay ‘Conjuring’, published in South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopaedia. Similarly, members of the Parayas — another ‘low’ caste in Kerala, India — use a secret language called Vaaplanc. This language, according to Dileep V., a graduate student at the University of Kerala’s Department of Linguistics, is used by the Parayas to keep themselves safe “from the attacks of dominant classes.”

The Pakhiwass — a gypsy community in Pakistan — speak a secret language called Od or Odki. In his graduate thesis titled ‘A Sociolinguistic Study of Od: The Language of Pakhiwass of Rawalpindi Region’, Shamailur Rehman sees Odki being used as a “symbol of solidarity” among community members who “are considered rude, lazy and lascivious” by members of other communities with whom they frequently interact.

Perhaps the most widespread of all the secret languages of South Asia is Farsi, which is “unrelated to Persian Farsi”, as sociolinguist and anthropologist Professor Kira Hall rightly states in her essay ‘Intertextual Sexuality: Parodies of Class, Identity and Desire in Liminal Delhi’, published in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology.

This Farsi is used by Hijras all over Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and by the Kotis of India. The Hijras, according to Hall, have been “discussed variously as ‘transvestites’, ‘eunuchs’, ‘hermaphrodites’ and even ‘a third sex’.” Most are born as boys and almost all are raised as boys, before they join Hijra households that can be found in practically every town and city in the Subcontinent. They use Farsi as a marker of their identity and a tool of group solidarity. It helps them maintain their privacy and secrecy. It also helps them regulate each other in the vulnerable situations in which they frequently find themselves, given the social stigma they face.

In her dissertation ‘Language, Gender and Identity: The Case of Kotis in Lucknow’, Ila Nagar, associate professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University, defines Kotis as men who dress and act like women and live away from Hijras and English-speaking gay communities in India. However, with no identity of their own, they pretend to be Hijras and, in order to falsely adopt a Hijra identity, they learn Farsi.

As they are not fully aware of the significance of the secrecy of this language, they give away much information about it to outsiders, unlike Hijras who would do everything in their capacity not to do so. From body parts — nejma meaning tooth — to footwear and garments — khalki meaning shoe, santli meaning shawl — this well-guarded language has words for almost everything, including ‘I love you’, which would be ‘Hamala tamala nal rootha krendi ey’.

Secret languages are not unique to South Asia. They are found all over the world; for instance, the Lunfardo spoken by prisoners in Argentina, the Thieves’ Cant of criminal gangs in Britain and the Carny of professional wrestlers. But in South Asia, they are more in number and, in some cases, can pose serious threats to society.

The use of secret tongues by criminals could be stopped by law enforcement documenting these codes and increasing public awareness of them. Investing in the rehabilitation of criminals is equally important. To deal with the challenge posed by secret tongues spoken in the bazaars and business centres, it is important to ensure customers’ right to information in the markets.

However, the creation and use of secret tongues by the Maslets, Pakhiwass, Parayas, Hijras and Kotis shows that not all subgroups owning a secret tongue necessarily belong to a criminal subculture. Susan Wadley, professor emeritus of anthropology at Syracuse University, is right in not agreeing with R.R. Mehrotra who, in his book Sociology of Secret Language, associates secret languages with crimes and considers groups such as pandas (Hindu priestly agents) and dalaals (brokers, in this case middlemen in the silk business) as belonging to criminal subcultures. Instead of condemning these groups as criminals just on the basis of their use of a secret tongue, experts need to analyse their situations and highlight the reasons why a community prefers to stay unheard by the world. This should lead to mainstreaming of the marginalised.

The writer teaches Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English at the International Islamic University, Islamabad. His publications include his Urdu novel Sasa and three books of literary and academic translation

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 14th, 2020


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