“Do you want tea or coffee?” My friend asked as the four of us moved along the queue in the café.
“Coffee,” I replied.
“Man, I thought Mallus preferred tea?”
“Dude, that’s offensive!” my friend Prakash cried.
“What’s so offensive?” asked Vinod, looking confused. He was from Mumbai, by the way.
“He means you can’t just generalize about people like that,” I explained, exchanging a knowing look with Prakash, my fellow Mallu.
“No!” Prakash objected, shooting me a confused look. “I meant that word! Don’t call us that!”
What word? Mallu?
Wait, is Mallu a bad word? Is Mallu a derogatory word? Is Mallu a…slur?
A friend of mine mentioned that Mallu is like the N word for Malayalis. That reminded me of a comment comedian John Mulaney once made about such comparisons: “If you are comparing one word to the other, and you’re not even saying the other word, that’s the worse word.“
Assuming you agree with me that Mallu is not equivalent to one of the most offensive racial slurs in the language today, the question is, where does it fall on the spectrum? Derogatory words have certain connotations, imagery and implications attached to them. When someone calls you a Mallu, what stereotypical picture is being conjured?
Someone who eats rice, has greasy coconut oil drenched hair and a weird accent?
Many years ago, a college mate told me he hated the word Mallu for a different reason. “They use that word for an entire category of porn, you know? Those ‘Mallu porn’ videos? It’s so insulting!”
I was sceptical about the whole concept. I couldn’t think of how saying Mallu instead of Malayali would be derogatory. Then I remembered a word that was often used in my circles.
“Pandi” was basically a Tamilian. But looking back, I know that those five letters didn’t just refer to any person who spoke Tamil. My father had many colleagues who were Tamilians. Never once did I walk into the kitchen when they came over for evening tea and tell my mother, “The pandi wants it without sugar”. Looking back, I cringe whenever I think of all the times I’d have ever heard or referred to someone as a pandi.
A Pandi was not a well dressed, well educated Tamilian who worked in the office and greeted you at social events with a warm smile and a friendly handshake.
No. Looking back, a Pandi was…
Someone dark-skinned, mostly with a naked upper body, clad only in a dirtied lungi, clutching gardening equipment of some kind, busy at work. They were pandis.
I once heard my religious studies (madrasa) teacher ironically narrate the story of the Malayalee who went to the Gulf only to be shocked at how racist the Arabs were to him and remark incredulously to his friend, “Evar nammale orumathiri pandikale poleyanada treat cheyyunnathu!”
So Pandi was a derogatory word. But the question remains. Does Mallu fall in that category?
Now that I think about it, from a Malayali’s perspective, there are several other names that have ugly connotations just like Pandi does. When you are with fellow Malayalis and see a friend from Rajasthan worry about how to split the restaurant bill, would someone remark he was being a Marwadi? Someone misery, someone stingy, someone overly concerned about money?
This article is not meant to be a repository of every slur and derogatory word that Malayalis use when describing people from different parts of India. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder. If we can see the connotations in words like Pandi and Marwadi, can they see it in Mallu as well?
There’s a concept I came across when researching this topic. It’s called melioration. The process by which “a term begins as pejorative (derogatory) and eventually is adopted in a non-pejorative sense.” Examples include “punk”, “dude”, and “nerd”.
All these words used to describe a particular type of person, mostly in an unflattering or insulting manner. But over the years, they lost that particular angle and became almost harmless.
Is that what happened with the word “Mallu”? Did it have certain offensive context to it, and has it since become harmless?
The fact that I’m writing this article after talking to several fellow Malayalis proves the fact that not everyone is aware there’s even an issue with the word “mallu”. And I don’t intend to make it an issue, either. But isn’t it fascinating how and why words become offensive?
I hope there are non-Malayalis who read this article and offer their views in the comment section. It’d be interesting to know how different people outside Kerala view us. I remember how my Tamilian classmate in Qatar was baffled by the word Pandi. He’d never heard it before, and couldn’t understand why we are saying it’s not a good word to use to describe him. The word had no power over him. It couldn’t embarrass or offend, insult or irritate.
Now I’m wondering if that’s the same case with the word Mallu. If you and your friends use that word in a harmless, easy shorthand, would you be better off not knowing its derogatory roots? Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss, right?
Over the years I’ve realized that there are a lot of words we use that need to be replaced. Not because, as the cynics would grumble, the political correctness squad is demanding it. But simply because I’ve understood words have power.
When it was announced that calling a person from Northeastern India a “Chinki” would land you in jail for 5 years, I remember people debating about it. What was the big deal? Why is everyone taking it so seriously? Reading about how that word has been used to stereotype and degrade people based on their looks, their perceived character and their abilities made me understand that words aren’t merely words.
Thankfully, Malayalis aren’t stereotyped and insulted with the word “Mallu”. Right? I really don’t know. What do you think? Maybe I’ll update this article with your feedback. Everyone has their own take on the word. And there are many Malayalis who’d love to know if others share their opinion on the matter.
Do you like being called a Mallu?
Why? Why not?