All Indians are proud of their country and treat its citizens as brothers and sisters, their cultural and religious differences notwithstanding (at least in theory). But as long as anybody can remember the North and South Indians have regarded each other as curiosities to be viewed askance through the glass wall that is the Vindhyas. Down South, stereotypical versions of the Northerners include images of Punjabis going ‘balle balle’ and gorging on tandoori chicken or evil ‘Sethjis’ who chew paan and make Shylock seem like the epitome of compassion. Thanks to Bollywood, it is assumed that South Indians live on noodles flavoured with curd when not stuffing their mouths with idli and sambar, smearing their foreheads with liberal amounts of sacred ash and running around fluttering their hands to the steady accompaniment of ‘aiyayo’ or ‘aiyo’ for short.
The same South Indians who took umbrage for this less than accurate or flattering portrayal of their charming quirks are now doing a victory dance (or its Bharatanatyam equivalent) thanks to Oxford Dictionary, which has included ‘aiyo’ as an addition to its lexicon. This newly minted, bona fide English phrase is an exclamation according to the revered Guardian of the world of English words, in Southern India and Sri Lanka, expressing distress, regret, or grief; ‘Oh no!’, ‘Oh dear!’
Those from traditional Southern households would tell you that the elders tend to frown on the casual usage of ‘aiyo’ by youngsters (‘Aiyo! I look fat in this selfie’) because it is essentially a lament and they believe that it could serve as an invitation for calamity to strike. Rather like the boy who cried ‘wolf’ and was grievously punished with an accommodation in the belly of the predator for his lapse in judgement. But even those stern bastions of tradition would approve of the recognition given to this term, which conveys pithy emotion so succinctly and will no doubt be less inclined to rap the knuckles of those who use it indiscriminately now that the term has the blessing of Oxford Dictionary.
In other good news for South Indians, ‘ayya’ has also been accommodated by the definitive authorities of the English language. For the uninformed, ‘ayya’ is no relative of ‘aiyo’. It is now defined as a noun in Sri Lanka: an older brother. Or more generally, any older male relative or acquaintance. Frequently used as a form of address, having its origins in Tamil aiyan, ayya is also used to modify the word for ‘brother’ to convey the sense ‘elder’, and as a respectful form of address to male superiors more generally, ultimately from Sanskrit arya.
Those who have earlier been pulled up by Anglophiles and teachers who speak pukka English can feel free to spice up the language with colourful epithets in the hope that someday even something as provocative as ‘Poda panni’ (Get lost, Pig! in Tamil) will win respectability.
(Chandramouli is the authorof Arjuna, Shakti and Yama’s Lieutenant)