Book: Between the Assassinations

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THE LANGUAGES OF KITTUR:

Kannada, one of the major languages of South India, is the official language of the state of Karnataka, in which Kittur is located. The local paper, the Dawn Herald, is published in Kannada. Although understood by virtually everyone in the town, Kannada is the mother tongue only of some of the Brahmins. Tulu, a regional language that has no written script—although it is believed to have possessed a script centuries ago—is the lingua franca. Two dialects of Tulu exist. The “upper-caste” dialect is still used by a few Brahmins, but is dying out as Tulu-speaking Brahmins switch to Kannada. The other dialect of Tulu, a rough, bawdy language cherished for the diversity and pungency of its expletives, is used by the Bunts and Hoykas—this is the language of the Kittur street. Around Umbrella Street, the commercial center, the dominant language changes to Konkani: this is the language of the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, originally from Goa, who own most of the shops here. (Although Tulu-and Kannada-speaking Brahmins began intermarrying in the 1960s, the Konkani Brahmins have so far rejected all marriage proposals from outsiders.) A very different dialect of Konkani, corrupted with Portuguese, is spoken in the suburb of Valencia by the Catholics who live there. Most of the Muslims, especially those in the Bunder, speak a dialect of Malayalam as their mother tongue; a few of the richer Muslims, being descendants of the old Hyderabad aristocracy, speak Hyderabadi Urdu. Kittur’s large migrant worker population, which floats around the town from construction site to construction site, is mostly Tamil-speaking. English is understood by the middle class.

It must be noted that few other towns in India can match Kittur’s street language for the richness of its expletives, which come from Urdu, English, Kannada, and Tulu. The most commonly heard term, “son of a bald woman,” requires explanation. Upper-caste widows were once forbidden to remarry and forced to shave their heads to prevent them from attracting men. A child born of a bald woman was very likely to be an illegitimate one.

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Next: Day Four Umbrella Street