Poor molehills and moles have been a troubled lot ever since Nicholas Udall wrote that ‘the Sophistes of Grece coulde through their copiousness make an Elephant of a flye, and a mountaine of a mollehill’ in 1548. Mole, as a known word had existed for less than two hundred years when this happened. But molehills have finally got their ticket into being ‘a slip of the tongue’ and the credit must go to Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha. Calling the new President of India, a ‘Rashtrapatni’ has given every publication in the country a blazing new headline for a day.

A seasoned politician knows what to do to remain in the news, but this is probably one example of going overboard in the sheer excitement of wanting to say something memorable. Moreover, he is no Reverend Spooner who turned a loving shepherd into a shoving leopard and gave us spoonerisms. This one will most likely remain in the memory of the electorate as did Mani Shankar Iyer’s ‘neech‘ comment that he later claimed was a horribly gone wrong translation of ‘lowly’ or Sam Pitroda’s ‘1984 mein hua toh hua‘… this is not to say that the ruling party today has any dearth of such slips, dips, and snips. Aunt Sally from Huckleberry Finn would have been ‘almost putrified with astonishment‘ at the rate with which our esteemed leaders convert appropriateness into malapropisms! I am looking forward to some psycholinguist somewhere explaining the accelerating phenomenon of such incidents in the Indian political arena.

The rashtrapatni controversy - artwork by Arvind Passey
The rashtrapatni controversy – artwork by Arvind Passey

While writing this article I found that these slips are classified into two kinds. The first is called a Selection Error where it is simply a matter of a wrong word replacing the right one, for instance, tomorrow instead of today. The next is an Assemblage Error where the order of words goes haywire. Most readers will agree that uttering rashtrapatni could not have been either. According to The Wire, ‘the National Commission for Women and 12 state commissions for women on Thursday (July 28) criticised Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury for calling President Droupadi Murmu ‘rashtrapatni’ and said the remark is deeply insulting and sexist’… and this does not sound inappropriate if the utterance was not a mere slip of the tongue.

One wonders if hiding behind the flimsy protection of such slips of the tongue is an addiction because he had earlier caught the attention of the media with his ‘Kahan maa Ganga, kahan gandi naali‘ comment while comparing Indira Gandhi with Narendra Modi. In another incident quoted in the press, Adhir Ranjan had used the word ‘nirbala‘ for Nirmala Sitharaman, though she had immediately shot back reminding him that empowered women in India today are ‘sablas‘. The one common feature in most cases of inappropriate words or phrases used by our politicians is that they not only hide behind slips of their tongue but also protect their slipping tongue by nudging them to lie low under the pretext of problems with translation from their language to Hindi. In this case though one does not see translation creating any issue. In fact, it sounds somewhat puerile to have used the word that allowed the ruling party to raise this hullaballoo. This kind of irreverence could possibly exist in what is known as the locker-room conversations… and to allow flippant euphoria of the past evening to tag along to the parliament is like inviting trouble.

It is time to think of an appropriate solution to prevent translations being blamed for every parliamentarian gaffe. Every time an unsolicited comment dashes to the headlines, the person behind it mutters: The translation slipped and then so did my tongue. It is time, therefore, for translators to be up in arms. No, not to stage another ill-conceived dharna but to conduct free online translation workshops for our politicians. Specky, my wife, read this part and suggested that consultants could be better used. After all, these people come heavily laden with engineering and management degrees from top institutes and know how to tweak and stabilise erring psyches. Their conversation could go somewhat on these lines:

  • Hello shriman consultant.
  • Hello politician ji.
  • I want to tell the masses that though our candidate lost the Presidential election, we are still the winners.
  • Okay.
  • What must I say? Is it okay to call the new President a Rashtrapatni? This will surely give us some free publicity.
  • Yes, of course… but it will be better to just pack your bags and go on long leave to Italy. That’s a faster route to getting the media chasing you.
  • Really?
  • Yes, Ask Rahul. But if you’d like to know the word for President in Hindi, I can direct you to our resident-award winning writer. But there will be a small charge for it.
  • In crores?
  • No, I said it will be a charge or fee, not a kick-back, sir.

However, more than any consultant, our people know how to let molehills remain just that and know the art of fixing tongues that habitually slip. They wait for that one moment when the voter’s slip is in their hands.




Arvind Passey
02 August 2022