Hau, hallu, Hyderabad

Mallik Thatipalli | Updated on July 31, 2020 Published on July 31, 2020

Left in lingo: The dialect of Hyderabad, full of candid expressions and colour, lends naturally to humour   -  MOHAMMED YOUSUF

If anything defines Hyderabad as much as biryani, it’s the quirky language it speaks

* The dialect of Hyderabad is full of candid and colourful expressions which evoke laughter. Words such as haula (fool) and hallu (slow), nakko (no) and hau (yes) are a part of its popular phrases

* Hyderabadi poets such as Sarvar Danda, Himayatullah, Talib Khumdmiri and Mustafa Ali Baig have always entertained audiences with choice Hyderabadi words and phrases

* YouTubers such as The Baigan Vines and Hyderabad Diaries, who post videos in Hyderabadi, are a huge hit not only locally but also nationally and with the diaspora crowd

Farooq Sheikh, the late actor, was in Hyderabad in 2009 for a show when he was asked to share his defining memory of the city. “I was travelling in an autorickshaw with [co-actor] Naseeruddin Shah while shooting for a Shyam Benegal film,” he recalled. The auto stopped at a busy junction, waiting for the traffic light to turn green. “For some reason, our auto driver kept honking, much to the displeasure of other commuters. Suddenly, a rickshaw-wallah next to us shouted: Zyada bajaye toh laal hara hota kya (Will the red light turn green if you honk incessantly?)? Everyone started laughing.”

The spirit, the dialect and the wit, Sheikh added, defined the city for him.

Indeed, language is an identity most Hyderabadis wear on their sleeve. Electricians who say abi-ich (right away) and turn up after a fortnight, or drivers who console owners of cars they have just crashed into with the causal light le lo (take it easy), or the use of the word baigan to denote not the vegetable but everything from awe to aversion are all cornerstones of the Hyderabadi identity.

Eggplant to the fore: Hyderabadis use the word baigan to denote everything from awe to aversion   -  ISTOCK.COM


Origins of the language

The Deccan for centuries has had its own language — Dakhni. A mix of Urdu and Hindi, it is spoken mostly in Telangana and parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Its original base is Punjabi and the language has evolved over time while remaining fiercely local, borrowing words from home-grown lexicons. In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, for instance, it embraces Telugu words; in Karnataka, Kannada words; in Maharashtra from Marathi. Simply put, it is a khichdi of Urdu, Hindi and the local language.

One of the first recorded works in Dakhni was Fakhr-I Din Nizami’s 1420 tale Kadam Rao Padam Rao, about a king and a yogi, says the Hyderabad-based historian Sajjad Shahid. “It remained a popular language till Aurangzeb’s invasion of Golconda and started losing prominence around the 17th century,” he says.

When the Nizams assumed power in Hyderabad, they found it to be a region with a rich culture, cuisine and language of its own. To capture the local narrative they invoked changes in all aspects of life from clothes to architecture and the language. As a result, Dakhni took a backseat.

A famous couplet by Syed Miran Hashmi, written around 1690,goes like this:

Tujhe chaakri kya

Tu apnich bol

Tera sher dakhni hain

Tu dakhni-ich bol

(What is your work? You speak your own language

If your poetry is in Dakhni, speak only Dakhni)

Shahid believes that what is spoken today retains the flavour, pronunciation and vocabulary of Dakhni, but in a watered-down version. He refers to it as ‘Hyderabadi’ or ‘Hyderabadi Urdu’.

Humour and the city

The dialect of Hyderabad lends naturally to humour. It is full of candid and colourful expressions which evoke laughter. Words such as haula (fool) and hallu (slow), nakko (no) and hau (yes) are a part of its popular phrases. Humour is also sparked by other eccentricities such as calling a man of 50 a potta (boy) or the dwindling trend of aristocratic women referring to themselves in the masculine form.

No other word captures the uniqueness of the language as succinctly as parso. While to Hindi speakers it may mean the day before or the day after, Hyderabadis refer to it as any time from the reign of the Nizams to the recent pandemic. It might mean yesterday or a few decades ago, depending on the situation.

Amit Sharma, an investment banker from Chandigarh who works in Hyderabad, cites an example of its usage. “I was discussing the Delhi riots at work, when my colleague spoke of ‘dange jo parso Hyderabad mein hue thhe (the riots that occurred in Hyderabad the other day)’. I realised a little later that this parso was in the early ’90s! Whatever happened in the past, happened only the day before yesterday for Hyderabadis.”

In the old city, humour is everywhere, and language is an important part of its charm. Satyanarayana Sari, a retired professor settled in the city, points out that its quaintness and amalgamation of languages may surprise Urdu or Hindi speakers. “It is a very witty and humorous dialect. In Hindi, you would say, ‘Aap ne mujhe bulaya’ while we Hyderabadis cut to the chase by saying, ‘Aap bulaye?’ All connectors get eliminated in the conversation, making it personal.”

Popular writers too have used the language to underline sarcasm and criticism. Hyderabadi poets such as Sarvar Danda, Himayatullah, Talib Khumdmiri and Mustafa Ali Baig have always entertained audiences with choice Hyderabadi words and phrases.

Danda, a popular satirist in the ’50s, used Hyderabadi to critique the then hugely popular chief minister Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy. One of his verses implored the government to do more for students:

Taleem nai so bacche

Niklenge kan se acche

Taleem phugat dilana

Sanjeeva Reddy mama

(How can kids without education turn out good?

Provide free education, Sanjeeva Reddy!)

Lovers of the language point out with some pride that everyone — from the plumber to the policeman or the politician — may be referred to as chicha or mama.

The language is an extension of Hyderabadi culture. Singers called mirasans (now virtually extinct) were popular for their humorous songs sung during pre-wedding functions. The language also features in annual poetry sessions (such as Zinda Dilan-e-Hyderabad), whichare popular among young poets who speak the local dialect.

New platforms

Online presence: Members of The Baigan Vines, a YouTube channel that posts videos in Hyderabad


The language is now increasingly being adopted by young netizens. YouTubers such as The Baigan Vines and Hyderabad Diaries, who post videos in Hyderabadi, are a huge hit not only locally but also nationally and with the diaspora crowd. Using tropes which are distinctively familiar to the people of the region (such as the fascination with Hyderabadi biryani or the travails of Hyderabadis in the Gulf) they deliver local content in the home-grown language and dialect.

Aamer Bin Ishaq, co-founder of The Baigan Vines, says these videos are popular because the language is that of an ordinary Hyderabadi. “Our videos are made in the language we use in our day-to-day lives. It’s not put on,” he says. “People, especially from North India, find it catchy because it’s unusual to put things the way Hyderabadis do.” He cites the phrase ‘zup bolke main aagaya (I reached in a flash)’ and the fact that the syllable ‘aah’ works as a plural, to make his point. “We say ‘book-aah’ instead of ‘books’. People crack up when they hear this as it’s naturally entertaining.”

With views in millions, and showcasing the popular colloquial tongue, the inspiration for these young content creators is the chabutra of the Old City. Chabutras are to Hyderabadis what addas are for Bengalis. In local parlance, a chabutra refers to a raised stone platform, normally built in front of houses, and used for sitting and socialising, often late into the night. Wit and sarcasm are important elements in the arsenal of an average Hyderabadi, and it is at gatherings such as these that these twin talents are honed.

Ishaq recalls a group of youngsters chatting on a chabutra. “They were having a contest in which they used popular English rhymes and replaced them with local words. It was spontaneous and extremely funny. We made a couple of videos on Hyderabadi rhymes, which were an instant hit and racked up millions of views,” he says over the phone.

Zainab Ali Sajjad of Hyderabad Diaries also believes that their videos are popular because people can relate to him. “So many people message me on Instagram from the US, UAE and Saudi Arabia saying our videos make them nostalgic for the Hyderabad they left behind. Our USP is that we capture the essence of the city well: Both the language and the quirks. Like they say in Hyderabadi, what we do is kiraak (crazy), it defines us perfectly.”

Relevance today

Some believe that the form of Dakhni spoken today is confined to the lower middle classes, but it is a veritable part of the upper class’s language, too. Hyderabad-based writer and columnist Narendra Luther recalls a story to underline this paradox.

“Once a stranger to the city asked whether the road he was standing on led to Charminar. An urchin replied ‘hau’. A local (upper class) passer-by admonished the boy for using the vulgar expression ‘hau’.

“Yes, sir,” the boy noted respectfully and asked, “What should I have said?’

“Ji haan,” responded the passer-by.

“Is ‘hau’ a vulgar word?” the boy asked.

“Hau,” replied the other involuntarily.

Conveying infinite variations in finite forms is an art that the Hyderabadi has perfected. The potta and potti language of the Deccan may be a cause of amusement elsewhere in the country but Luther says it often conveys wisdom through humour and shares another gem which is oft-quoted:

Phoophi sas nakko

Bhatiji bahu nakko

Ban di sau tan nakko

Khet mein nala nakko

Ghar mein sala nakko

Kathil pital ka saz nakko

Boodhe mard ka raj nakko

(Father’s sister should not be mother-in-law

Brother’s daughter should not be daughter-in-law

Maid should not be made a co-wife

Sown land should not have a drain

Wife’s brother should not stay in the house

Brass ornaments are useless, just as marriage with an old man is pointless).

Cutting across the divides of religion and class, Hyderabadi remains at its heart the language of Hyderabad. With its elemental usage of similes, metaphors and expressions, its unique linguistic identity is a matter of pride for most Hyderabadis. Mamas, pottas, pottis, all.

Mallik Thatipalli is a journalist based in Hyderabad

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Published on July 31, 2020
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