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!”


Anonymous said…
i dont think ille/illa is used in telugu... they say "laedhu"
Mystique said…
either way.....yea, the gender thing in hindi is highly irritating, with the result that my hindi is very bad...
the gender thing is also there in french, and its worse!!!
ah...it crazy, really, i seem to be speaking a lot of hindi, and a crazy combo of english, hindi and a bit of marathi to make myself understood these days....
does this mean my expressive abilities are going down? hope not.
'kay, i'm mystique, read my blog....the whole thing, not just the last few posts...and you will know much about me
@ Priya: Of course. My mistake. My Gult friends will be shattered at my cavalier attitude. Blame it on old age!
the mad momma said…
God you remembered my idiotic husband's forays into tamil speaking?! excellent post!
Anonymous said…
and about the non-verbal cue... i've lived "south of the vindhyas" all my life and haven't noticed anything like that.. i mean, we nod for yes and shake our head for no, just like elsewhere - atleast no one else has pointed this out until now, and i haven't come across any problems with those up north before.
trivia: in bulgaria, people shake their heads for yes and nod for no. not too sure about how true this is, though.
Gypsy said…
hahahaha..hilarious post! had me chuckling thru it all...will come back for more.keep writing!
dipali said…
Great post. Kaafi humorous also:)
My purist parents squirm at the mish-mash of languages that is our favoured mode of spousely communication, since we've lived in Thailand, UP, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and twaadda Kolkata, and my husband's family comes from the NWFP, where a strange dialect called Derewali was spoken.
Priya, as a North Indian in Kerala I was completely befuddled by the head nodding- could never tell if the auto-wallah had comprehended where you wished to go to, or not.
iz said…
Ummmm but how do you know enga-pponga languages.
Anonymous said…
hopped over from mm's blog and am delurking coz this has to be the funniest post i have ever read.
its 12.56 a.m., and i am clutching my sides and laughing my guts out. the husband was not too pleased at being called away from the match to read what i was chuckling about, but he chuckled on his way back to the tv too!
ROTFL - this has got to be one of the funniest posts I've ever read. The situations you mentioned remind me of the look on our firang nanny's face when my mother-in-law innocently tried to entertain my nine-month old with the magic words, Chiching 'PhaNk' - which to a Western's ears would mean something quite different. LOL
Rima said…
Extremely funny post...I was in Pune for more than a year and never knew about Podfata...laughing my butt of now..!!!
Cee Kay said…
Funny post! My mom's bengali friend once asked her - "Tumhe kaise maloom padta hai ki pani aati hai ya aata hai?"

Too funny, I tell you! And the South Indians shaing their heads for "Yes"? My husband tells me all his South Indian colleagues here do that!
Anonymous said…
Hilarious post...reminded me of all the times I heard certain phrases and wondered why nobody was hitting the person! (Esp. the Pune bus incident)
Parama Ghosh said…
on the bengalis trying to speak in Hindi on the slighest chance, almost alwez speaking it worng, i have to share things which i have sed in recent tymes n made my ppl ROFL...that wud include..."ami chithi ta (letter)bheje diechhi", "bag tul dijiye (pic up the bag)", "table chitchit karta he, muchh dijiye" and so on...
thequark said…
there is this gotilla joke everyone new in Bangalore is supposed to know. Every non Kannada speaker knows the word gotilla which means "not knowing" but when a person is talking to you in Kannada you should not say gotilla you should say Kannada gotilla, why you may ask.

A North Indian new to Bangalore was unaware of ladies reservation in buses. When the conductor accosted him saying this is a ladies seat in Kannada, the poor sod replies Gotilla. Conductor exclaimed do you know you are a lady or not? And the North Indian for the crowd's amusement replied

Unknown said…
@thequark....hahahhaha.....extremely funny
@dipta da...what to say.....can't complain if u keep out churning posts like this
Anonymous said…
i'm glued to your blog