Tuesday, August 16, 2011


It may be worthwhile to consider the significance of some of our proverbs and words which have proverbial status. The reason is that proverbs often express significant social attitudes. There is a proverb in Odia (earlier spelling, “Oriya”) which indirectly relates to corruption: caakiri kariba pulisi, maacha khaaiba ilisi a rather literal and rough translation of which is the following: join the police service; eat ilisi (also called hilsa) fish. It means the best service to join is the police service and the best fish to eat is the hilsa fish. ‘Service” here is government service; at the time of the “origin” of this proverb a government job was the best. The proverb is not really about the hilsa fish; it is about what makes a job attractive – an attractive job is the one in which one always has the opportunity to make a little extra money. If there is no upuri (extra money), it is not an attractive job. From the point of view of this proverb, a job that involves frequent tours is better than the one which has no provision for tours because one could always make a little money from one’s travelling allowances – there is nothing terribly wrong if one travels in the sleeper class and charges first class fare. One must not get caught: nei aani thoi jaanile cori bidyaa bhala – if one can manage things, a bit of stealing is good. One is considered a bit dull if one can’t manage a little extra money. More than forty five years ago, when I got my first job, perfectly well meaning and affectionate elderly people in my village asked me whether my job had upuri. When I said I had a teaching job at a college, they almost consoled me saying I could offer tuition and earn something. There are equivalents of upuri in Odia: di paisaa (two-pice) and antaa gunjaa (money tied at the waist in the dhoti one is wearing), to name two. These occur in informal speech and writing and are not negative terms; these are neutral, even slightly positive in certain contexts of use. Of course no proverb or wise saying openly advocates bribery, but proverbs are not part of niti shastras; they only mirror social realities. Now upuri which legitimizes bribery is not about amassing millions but about just a little to make the day-to-day life of oneself and one’s family a little comfortable. The word can be qualified by bhala (good) - bhala upuri - but it is still not about millions and crores; it is about a few hundreds. Collecting big money is theft, a crime. The term upuri is self-oriented, in the sense that there is nothing like upuri for one’s institution or political party or business.

The “pulis” proverb is less than two hundred years old, but the “cori vidya” one is much older. In fact, there are some folktales that embody this latter idea. Now it is common knowledge that proverbs express the accumulated experience of a linguistic community and that they are about day-to-day life, telling us about how to live a trouble free life, not how to live a virtuous life. In fact one who tries to help others at the cost of self is looked down upon in the world of proverbs as a simpleton. For example, consider this one: aapanaa kapadaa paraku dei, siba paleile langalaa hoi (giving away his own clothes to the other, Lord Shiva went away naked). Here Lord Shiva’s generosity is not celebrated, his naivety is frowned upon. One who lives a virtuous life and suffers privations or discomfort in the process is not taken seriously and is generally called a bicaraa (poor fellow). Cleverness is admired. The linguist Aditi Ghosh assures me that Odia is not the only Indian language which has such words, proverbs or wise sayings that in a way endorse a pragmatic attitude towards life and a bit of dishonesty as a consequence.

This attitude of ignoring, in fact condoning, a bit of bribery may be the primary reason for the rampant corruption at the grass root level that we notice in our society. A decent and well-intentioned friend of mine once described bribing as service charge for getting work done and with that euphemism legitimized bribing. Some years ago, the bearer of the income tax refunds document sometimes demanded a tip for doing his job and got paid too. One cursed the fellow but parted with a little money, consoling oneself that one had the evidence, delivered at the door step, that the tax had been paid. The telephone workers often ask for and are given a tip at the time of the installation of the landline phone at one’s residence. All these are in the spirit of the expressions mentioned above. It is this kind of societal corruption that is difficult to fight. Therefore there seems to be a point in legitimizing bribing, at least of a certain sort, namely, upuri.

The only problem is that a bribery-oriented society is very unfair to its poor. They do not have anything to offer as bribe, and as a result get excluded from everything: medical facilities, educational opportunities, access to basic amenities for a dignified living, etc. It is for their sake that the fight against corruption must be directed not just against money stored in some foreign banks, but also against this upuri-culture.

1 comment:

Nishi said...

Sir you only could have written this. Immense thanks for sharing it with me. I infact got nostalgic about the years i have spent in my villege in Odisha where all these were daily talks. Thanks