January 14, 2008


    Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh's racial abuse case appears to have taken a new twist with claims that Aussie all-rounder Andrew Symonds had possibly misinterpreted a derogatory Punjabi phrase which sounded like 'monkey'.

    The Indian team is now expected to argue at Singh's appeal hearing that he called Symonds a Maa Ki... (a derogatory word for abusing one's mother) in his native tongue.
(From this report in the Times of India).

This is the defence Harbhajan will put forward? That he didn't say "monkey", so it wasn't a racist comment, but that he did say something that would have offended any Indian; and in translation, would have offended anyone in the world?

I am not that concerned about Harbhajan actually saying that on the field: while offensive, it's what the intense heat of competition sometimes brings out in sportsmen. (Check the Sarwan-McGrath blowup).

But I am concerned about this astonishing wriggle, only to evade the racism charge. Is it our case that saying "monkey" would have been somehow worse than saying "maa ki ..."? If so, why the parallel effort to show that "monkey" is not offensive in India anyway? And is this what the "honour" of "every Indian", that the BCCI referred to in its official statement, depends on?


Anonymous said...

Lot of Indian players and other international players now saying that Aussies are sledging more than twenty years and they frequently using the word Ba@#**. My question why don't other players didn't complaint about Aussies? And what wrong to give back to Aussies what they usually giving to others..
Car Breakdown Cover

Anonymous said...

what's wrong with give back? but that is not the point. the issue is abt what harbajan said, and the defence he is now making.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dcubed,
You are a Catholic, you are NOT a real Indian.

That is why you will not be outraged at the treatment meted out to Harbhajan, you will focus on some inanity.

Its OK, we Indians (the real Indians) understand.

asuph said...

Shashi Mohan,

You know what, you've helped me understand Symmond's position better with this bigot comment of yours. Thanks a lot.

I know it's a lost cause, but real Indians are ashamed by this sledging. This is a bigger affront to "our" (excluding you, because you belong to a part of India that wants to mirror itself on our esteemed brother nation on the north-west borders) Indian culture than the alleged injustice towards Harbhajan (which is still not open-and-shut case, as the process is being followed there, and our board is part of that body).

asuph (go ahead, the name sounds muslim enough)

Anonymous said...

With regard to the latest Harbhajan-Symonds incident, while there are lots in the blogosphere arguing that "monkey" is not offensive, is there any official statement to that effect? Kumble's press column only says that Harbhajan denies making any such statement. I am aware that statements saying that "monkey" was not offensive were made after Symonds was subjected to monkey chants in India, but after the Sydney incident?

At any rate, there is a case for cultural differences with regard to the use of the word "monkey." I confess myself to be one of those who did not see why Symonds felt so offended by the mere use of that word (as opposed to monkey chants which are clearly offesnive). Enlightenment came via the following comment by a P. James in Mihir Bose's BBC blog:

"Mihir, I am an English expat living in Punjab. I have discussed this issue with a broad spectrum of people locally. I am yet to find one person that can comprehend that "monkey" is deeply insulting or racist. On reflection, it came to mind that 19th Century Darwinism has not had a significant impact on India society. It's merely the stuff of text books over here. Evolution never presented a challenge to Indian thought as it did to Christian thought in the West. And though 19th Century eugenics have largely been discredited and rejected in the West, the ideas still linger in our conciousness. I feel that if Harbhajan did indeed say "monkey", then he is guilty, but not as accountable as an English cricketer would have been under the same circumstances. Additionally, people who tour the world and represent India ought to be better briefed in future."

After reading the above, I also remembered reading (partially) Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man" which documents the ugly history (in the West) of the many (dubious) scientific attempts to "prove" that "blacks" are "sub-human" and more "ape-like." As an Indian, I can now understand why that word is so offensive in the West - its usage implies that the person you are using it against is not "fully" human and that is indeed deeply offensive. As Mr/Ms James says, those who represent India in the West ought to be better briefed about this issue.


Dilip D'Souza said...


I confess myself to be one of those who did not see why Symonds felt so offended by the mere use of that word [monkey]

Cultural differences or not, I thought of it like this. If I got into a heated argument about something with an Indian -- which is what Symonds and Harbhajan seemed to have got into -- and that Indian said to me "abbe, tu to bandar hai", it would strike me as pretty offensive. Wouldn't it strike you that way?

In any case, the point is moot: Harbhajan is now going to argue that what he said was "maa ki". Which, we apparently need to assume, is even less offensive.

Anonymous said...

Of course, when an Indian uses the word, it is not to flatter...on that count, there can be no disagreement. The question relates to the degree of offense. It was not till I read Mr/Ms James' observations that I fully grasped the implications of the word in the western context. There *is* an issue of cultural difference here; I presume you disagree. I'll leave it at that.

Lastly, in the *Indian* context, I think "abbe, tu to bandar hai" is less offensive than the brand of incestuous abuses prevalent in North and North-west India, but that is just my opinion.


Anonymous said...

sorry to follow up, but i don't think Harbhajan's defence [if true] is that he said anything less offensive; just that what he said wasn't racist. There is a difference between calling someone a c*** and a black c*** [as Darren Lehmann did to the Sri Lankans, I think]. I guess Harbhajan is claiming that what he said constitutes the former kind of abuse, not the latter.

At any rate, I am very sure that in a slanging contest in North India, if I call someone "bandar", the other person wouldn't even bat an eyelid but come back with - well, I don't think I need to say what. Pretty much how I'd react if someone called me "bandar" as well.


Dilip D'Souza said...


No, I agree about the cultural differences. I know that Aussies use "bastard" as a friendly term, for example. A lot like when I lived in Hyderabad, many local friends used "maa-ke-l..." as a term of affection, reserved for close (male) buddies.

"Abbe tu to bandar hai" would be less offensive than the incestuous abuses you mention, but two things about that:

first, when Symonds thought he heard "monkey", he can hardly be blamed for remembering the way the crowds treated him on his last trip to India, and I don't think any amount of being told that it's "not racist" would matter.

second, but Harbhajan's defence is going to be precisely that he used one of those more offensive incestuous abuses, and not "monkey"! I don't understand the fuss about it being or not being "racist" -- to me, an offensive term is an offensive term, period.

Anonymous said...


I don't think much remains to be said; let me just to take this opportunity to make a couple of final points and to thank you for a nice exchange:

1. If Harbhajan did use the monkey word, then he should be dealt with severely as he has already been told [during the ODI series] that the word is unacceptable.

2. It was the Aussies, I believe, who made the distinction between "mere abuse" and "racial abuse." In principle, I am with you - why is "monkey" any better or worse than the alleged "maa-ke-*"? Indeed, in some of the exchanges on internet forums following the incident, some Indians made this point repeatedly only to have their Australian interlocutors say that while "bastard" etc. is acceptable, racial abuse is not. Cultural [in]sensitivity is not a one-way street.

3. Symonds was perfectly justified in being sensitive - particularly following the prior blow-up and his treatment in India. One can of course ask why he stepped in to bait Harbhajan - if anyone had complaints, it was Brett Lee - but I suppose that is beside the point. I think Symonds deserve apologies from BCCI for the way the crowd treated him; even more, BCCI needs to take pro-active measures to ensure that such things don't happen in the future.


Anonymous said...

...when Symonds thought he heard "monkey",...

Having a conversation with Andrew Symonds could be a real challenge. Its possible one may make a monkey of oneself trying to avoid homophones for monkey, ape etc. :-)


Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks Suresh. Indeed, not much more to be said.

On cultural sensitivities, PIco Iyer has often written, in various ways, about the benefits of and the need to travel. Travel just to learn about the other guy, to find out for yourself about how he lives, instead of swallowing stereotypes. I read Iyer in this respect as saying that all of us who can travel need to do so, to bust our prejudices and learn about other cultures.

I hope there's a lesson in cultural sensitivity in all this, for the Hoggs and Harbhajans of this world.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry I made a monkey of myself with my last comment. In thinking over it, that was crude and uncalled for.

This is my last comment on this thread. Thanks Suresh and Dilip for a good discussion.