Sunday, October 31, 2004

Pakistan: Chuckles - "Tatti" and its literal meaning


If you say ‘toilet’ in the United States you might get a sharp intake of breath in response. The right word is ‘washroom’. This is a step forward from ‘water-closet’ which had to become WC because of its decline into indecent usage. It may amaze some of us to know that Urdu too has done something similar to its own euphemism for a place where we relieve ourselves. The word is tatti. It means exactly the same as toilet, yet you say it in good company and you might get a black eye. While not detracting from the high al fresco pleasures, one must register one’s plaint about the denigration of tatti. A child is today forbidden to say tatti ayee (I feel like defecating) and use bathroom aaya instead. Dictionaries have fallen silent over the word.

Good words gone bad
Khaled Ahmed

It is almost certain that the first latrine created in South Asia was a frame overhung with a kind of rough cloth. Just like ‘toilet’ in English, meaning ‘a piece of cloth’. ‘Taat’ means rough cloth or cloth made of jute. It has a diminutive ‘tatti’. Just don’t say it!

If you say ‘toilet’ in the United States you might get a sharp intake of breath in response. The right word is ‘washroom’. This is a step forward from ‘water-closet’ which had to become WC because of its decline into indecent usage.

It may amaze some of us to know that Urdu too has done something similar to its own euphemism for a place where we relieve ourselves. The word is tatti. It means exactly the same as toilet, yet you say it in good company and you might get a black eye.

Taat means rough cloth or cloth made of jute. It has a diminutive, tatti. There is another usage of tatti and that is a frame strung with roots and straw. A perfectly decent phrase khass ki tatti was in use soon after partition as a hanging that lessened the heat in a room.

A hunter’s term tatti ki ot say shikar khelna was quite normal, meaning hunting from behind a frame covered with straw. It is almost certain that the first latrine created in South Asia was a frame overhung by a kind of rough cloth. Not that our open-air habit is in any way less popular today.

Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul in his Area of Darkness wrote four lyrical pages on how people defecate in India. Award-winning American journalist Pamela Constable in her Fragments of Grace: My Search for Humanity from Kashmir to Kabul revisited the scene recently:

“Often leaving Delhi on a train or highway in the early morning, I would see a dozen solitary figures, perhaps fifty yards apart, hunkered half naked in a field or a weedy back lot, gazing unhurriedly into the distance and studiedly oblivious to the human activity around them.”

While not detracting from the high al fresco pleasures, one must register one’s plaint about the denigration of tatti. A child is today forbidden to say tatti ayee (I feel like defecating) and use bathroom aaya instead. Dictionaries have fallen silent over the word.

The truth is that tatti is no better or worse than ‘toilet’. We had another very fine word for latrine and we had got it from Persian: pakhana. It simply meant a place where to put your feet. What was wrong with it? Yet today if you want to be socially lynched say pakhana aaya (I feel like defecating) to your host.

Decent people use a rather stilted Arabic version: baitul khalaa. It means a place where we empty ourselves. Khalaa is also used for space and that is quite suitable because space is empty. The adjective khaali is very common in Urdu for empty. But baitul khalaa is a bit of a tongue-twister.

At times you may come across ‘lavatory’ which simply means washroom but has somehow descended into the domain of the indecent. If you have come across ‘lavabo’ it is even worse. We had a similar prevarication in ghusl khana (literally bathroom) but that too has not caught on. It is simply not fashionable.

One wonderfully euphemistic expression coined in the countryside has pitifully gone bad too. It was invented in relation to the place where most humanity in the villages went to do the needful. The place was jhaar (bush) and the word that came from there was jhaara. But just don’t say it!

The problem with us is that we do what is natural but don’t want to admit it. And we have to throw away nice words periodically to show our impatience with the smell that takes over good vocabulary in any case. *

Daily Times 31/10/2004