Tuesday, September 11, 2007

United Colours of India, Part Three

DISCLAIMER: Most (if not all) of the examples in this post are based on oral renditions. Factual accuracy is not claimed and should not be expected either.

A few days back, my wife wanted the remote. Like a true blue Punjaban, she asked, “Remote kitthey?” The extent of my multi-cultural life came through when I replied, “Itthey illa.
For the Hungarians who read my blog, kitthey is the Punjabi for where. Itthey is the Punjabi for here. And illa is the ‘Madrasi’ for no/not. I used the word Madrasi advisedly because ille/illa remains same across Tamil, Telugu and Kannada!

That exchange made me re-realise that this wonderful melting pot of a country has more languages than all of Europe has highways. And consequently, the probability of having a word with religious undertones in one language and incestuous overtones in another is quite high. Even if that is a bit of an exaggeration, there are several cases of rather hilarious confusion over similar sounding words in different languages.

My wife did her Masters in Pune. It is a different matter that majority of her class consisted of Bongs!
Anyway, she did not know what hit her when she got on a ladies special bus and the bus conductor started screaming “Fuck the mahila” every time the bus stopped! The firebrand that she is, her first impulse to whack the jerk behind his ears but good sense prevailed when she noticed nobody is really taking offence of the conductor’s scatological screams. Of course, the Marathis have realized ‘faktha’ means ‘only’ and the clarion call to make love to all the ladies in the bus was actually a warning to keep away from the ladies special!

The buses of Pune are evidently hugely funny places as there was this route called Podfata. Okay – Bongs, stop giggling and rest of you, stop wondering what the whole deal is about! Translated into Bengali, Podfata means ‘exploding bum’ and needless to say, this is as funny as the area on the outskirts of Ranchi called Chutiya. There are, in fact, two markets called Chhota Chutiya and Bada Chutiya.
As a young ASM, I was more than a little amused when I first visited this market to see the sales of soap and toilet cleaner. A shopkeeper warned me sternly that the name is to be pronounced with a hard T and not in the way you address any general asshole!

Bongs try to assimilate their good selves into the Indian conglomeration by trying to speak in Hindi at every possible opportunity. It is a different matter that they speak it all wrong (sometimes, intentionally!) and they end up offending all whose language they mangle.

Firstly, there is the small matter of the lady who once famously declared “Hum Bangalion ka gender nahin hota…” and sent her audience in a tizzy! What she meant was that in Bengali, every noun – common, abstract or otherwise – is not qualified with a gender.
On the other hand, Hindi insists on having a gender for every table, chair and ventilator. I am guilty of having my Hindi genders in a spin, as I never seem to get the grip of “Main karti hoon” and “Mera biwi karti hain” properly.
This practice is somehow not very logical as (1) it complicates the process of communication quite needlessly and (2) the gender of certain nouns are fixed rather arbitrarily and there is no scope of guessing it (unless you know it properly).
In one of the earlier Khushwant Singh joke books, he mentioned that an exclusively female appendage like ‘stan’ (breast) was male while a male device like ‘moochh’ (moustache) was female. I don’t know if this is true and despite working with Hindi wordsmiths all day, I never get the courage to ask anybody about this!

The Bengali language has a lot of similarities with Hindi – except one major one.
An aunt was surprised to open the door one afternoon and see her husband’s driver. “Saab ne cigarette mangwaya…”, he claimed. He sent his driver home to get a packet of cigarettes? Actually, my good uncle wanted the driver to pick up the pack from his cabin and used the Bengali word for room – ‘ghar’. Thus, the obedient driver promptly went to the boss’ ‘ghar’!
I asked several property brokers in Bombay – “Is flat mein kitne ghar hain?” – and had to hastily change the offending word to ‘kamra’ after seeing their uncomprehending looks!

The Southern languages are blessed with a sharpness that only Rajanikanth and Chiranjeevi have and we can only aspire for.
Having spent a large part of my life selling cooking oil and soft drinks to the Chettiar scions, I thought I was one of the better Amateur Speakers of Tamil till I heard what Mad Momma’s OA had done. He listened to FM radio on the way to work and managed to memorise phrases from the programmes. His signature phrase was “This is programme is sponsored by…” – which he repeated quite often and even talked about Kittu Mama and Susie Mami’s antics on his favourite morning show!

Telugu has lots of words which are just gibberish to the untrained ear but attain a certain dimension when heard in quick succession. “Repo randi pampistanu” has a distinctly obscene feel to it – and you are never really sure whether the guy referred to you as Big Boss or Head Pimp or any other term of respect!

The most confusing element of the South Indian language is the non-verbal cue. The shake of the head, for example. The South Indian shakes his head when he says ‘yes’. The concept of nodding just ceases to exist as soon as you cross the Vindhyas. Being in Sales, I have had innumerable sales reps promising to do their targets while tracing an ‘eight’ in the air with their shaking heads. I took their promises for granted, only to find out after the month that they were actually not too sure!

While on the subject of Southern languages, I am reminded of the vagaries of Tamil (which I wrote here) in the specific context of a wonderful film – Kandukondain Kandukondain (which means, "I have seen, I have realised"). Without dwelling on the felicities of Rajiv Menon’s film, I am now concerned with the fact that sometimes in Tamil, K and G become interchangeable. So, where does that leave the film’s name?

Some other day, I would like to compile a list of some of the fascinating Indian English phrases – the ones which we translate literally from Indian languages with hilarious effect.
The most famous example of which is – “What to do? We are like this only!”
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