Sunday, 24 June 2012

Lost in Translation!

The problem with us Indians speaking English is that we THINK in our mother tongues, do a quick mental translation, and burst forth in eloquence that would have the Queen reaching for her smelling salts!

My sister in law, who prides herself as being the only `Convent educated’ girl in her family, was trying to get her daughter to hurry up as they were already late for wherever it was they were going. Finally, exasperated at her slovenliness, she burst out “If you want to come, come – otherwise don’t come!”  What she was ACTUALLY saying was “Je tu aana ae te aa, nai ta naa aa!”

Introductions anywhere in India go something like this “Myself Malhotra. Your good name please?” I have long since given up trying to explain that I have only one name, neither good nor bad. But to the rest of India, not adding the `good’ is taken as a sign of disrespect – it has to be your `shubh naam’ and nothing else!

In Delhi, they used to ask me “How many issues do you have?”  Living in the capital, having to commute from Pritampura to South Block daily in a `chartered bus’(a Delhi speciality – it was one up on the ubiquitous DTC!), believe me I had plenty of issues. I was just getting warmed up with my harangue when I realised he was merely enquiring as to how many children I had. “Two”, I replied, “and I have tons of issues with them too!”

The worst of the lot, and I have to shamefully admit this comes straight from the Army, is the totally cringe worthy `lady wife’.  The implication in this tautology being, firstly, that you’re not gay, and secondly that your wife is not a tramp! It gives me smug satisfaction that this term has gained even wider acceptance in Pakistan, with seasoned journos like the late Khalid Hasan (arguably the most outstanding journalist the subcontinent has produced) and Irfan Husain using it quite regularly! When I raised this with KH some years ago, he did offer a sheepish sort of justification, but the word remains on top of my list of capital punishment worthy crimes!

There are plenty more. Anything good or great is actually `decent’. How did you like the movie? Yaar, badi DECENT thi! How is the kulfi-falooda at `Roshan di Kulfi’? Decent!  So when a Delhi-ite asks me how’s the weather at Poona, I merely say DECENT, and he turns green with envy!!

In Delhi, your daughter is never fat, obese or rotund – she is always `healthy’ (pronounced HAL-thee). I remember a typical Punjabi mom in Karol Bagh cribbing that her daughter had been rejected by potential suitors “Hamari beti thodi si hal-thee hai toh kya hua?”  The fact that the girl in question weighed over six stone, give or take, was of little consequence.  

Note books in the capital are called `copies’ (kaapi, plural kaapiyan).  Examinations or tests are called `paper’ (singular as well as plural), and marks are called `number’ (again both singular and plural).  I got very poor number in my paper – what to do, my copy was lost!  

Why can’t English be more like Punjabi? Two more generations of migration from Ludhiana to Southall, and I’ll bet the Concise Oxford Dictionary will appear in Gurmukhi!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Mind your language!!

Languages are meant to communicate, period. They are not something to get agitated about, not something to get emotional about. This is not to say that I will not cheerfully castrate, with a blunt knife, any idiot who substitutes `d’ for `the’, `dem’ for `them’ and so on!

Maharashtra and Bengal are two states which still have some pretense towards `culture’ – as distinct from Punjab, where the only culture they know is agriculture! Theatre is active, and regional plays and movies are alive and kicking. But that’s where the similarity ends. Let’s say you have to visit a government office to get a driving license or a voter id card. Or even make a trip to the sabzi market to buy vegetables.

In Poona, the guy you approach may open the conversation in Marathi. However, if you respond in Hindi, then immediately, without batting an eyelid, he’ll switch to Hindi too. He won’t be agitated. The idea is to COMMUNICATE.

Not so in Calcutta. Try responding to the Bong in Hindi, and he will look you up and down in scarcely disguised contempt. “Tumhi Bangla jani na? You don’t know BENGALI??” in much the same tone that Father Coutinho at St Vincents used to reserve for his more mentally challenged students.

Bengali is a soft, almost sibilant language, with the `hard’ consonants totally absent.  Marathi is just the opposite – the focus is on all the hard syllables – T (ट), Th (ठ), d(ड), dh (ढ), and na (ण).. They’ve even come up with their own `hard’ version of the sublimely soft `L (ल)’ – with the more gruttal `ळ’!  The true test of a pucca Marathi is the ability to correctly pronounce this alphabet (Try saying `Chitale Bandhu’ or `Golibar Maidan’, for example) – just as you can only be a true blue Punjabi if you can correctly pronounce their word for tummy - `tidd’!

As for Punjabi, I challenge anyone to name a language anywhere in the world so well suited for and so effective at swearing! I remember on a route march at IMA, on one of the breaks, we had a competition between an African cadet and a typical Dilli-wala (the inimitable Krishan Murari Tandon) on who could out-swear the other – Swahili or Punjabi. The gems that Tandon came up with were rip roaring and innovative as only a Delhi-ite Punjabi can be. How I would love to reproduce some of them here, but I’m told this blog is even read by ladies, so maybe over a couple of stiff drinks (and I mean REALLY stiff) sometime..                    

My mother hailed from a village in Punjab called Amargarh. Even the Hindi she spoke was heavily laced with Punjabi. The sabzi and fruit walis who enlivened Pudumjee Park, on the other hand, spoke a hybrid lingo that was almost totally rustic Marathi. And yet the way my mom bargained so animatedly – and successfully - with these ladies, it was a treat to watch.

“Theek theek dus” my mom would rebuke

“Aho theek ach saangti, bai!” Saru bai would implore

“Nai-nai, sanoo nai parwad-da” was my mom’s closing argument.

Mind you, my mother was haggling over eight annas – at a time when both her sons were Lt Cols in the Army!  But woe betide any of us if we ever tried to intervene. Like all mothers, she was convinced that her sons, howsoever `exalted’ in rank and stature, were naive ignoramuses, totally divorced from the ways of the world. In her words, “Thwanu kuch vi nai pata!”

My mother, God bless her soul, has long since departed. But Saru bai is still around, older and more wizened. She still does her rounds of Pudumjee Park, and cheerfully continues to rip us off – it must be sweet revenge for her for all those `annas and pice’ my mom successfully shaved off her rate list. I don’t have the patience to indulge in those verbal duels with her - and more so, she carries so many memories of a better, gentler era.. Oh, what the hell, I AM a soft touch anyway...

Monday, 18 June 2012

Hey Unkaal!

As I was crossing MG Road the other day, a street urchin tried to grab my attention. He thrust something under my nose, muttering some gibberish.  Being practically stone deaf in my left ear, I ignored him completely, and walked on.  Feeling slighted, he upped the ante. 

“Hey UNKAAL!” he screamed from behind me, “Bas kya??”   

This `nephew’ of mine was apparently trying to market some foul looking concoction which, if his marketing pitch was to be believed, would work wonders on my joints, essentially restoring me from a doddering sixty to a sprightly sixteen!

I have other such `nephews’ too - my barbers, or to use the more politically correct term, hair dressers. I use the plural because sadly, the good ones have a tendency to scoot off to greener pastures. My first guy, aptly named Iqbal, is now practicing his art somewhere in the Middle East. Salim, the next one is now in South Africa, and Mohammed, the present fellow, is just about getting the `feel’ of my intricate coiffure.  What the three of them had in common, apart from the fact that they each wielded a nifty pair of scissors, was their propensity to call me – you guessed it – UNKAAL! “Ekdum mast baal hai, unkaal!” 

Then there’s the butcher at Shivaji Market who, as he pretends to pick the choicest cut of meat for me, invariably adds by way of greeting “Kya unkaal, baut din baad aaye!”

I’ve become an `uncle’ to all and sundry of the next generation - from strapping young lads in their teens to middle aged dads in their 40’s! The burning desire among the youth of the world to ingratiate themselves as my nephews is only mildly irritating, and something I can live with. 

It is the lissome young lasses and PYT’s whose `uncle’ tag rankles the most.  At my age, with more salt than pepper in the mane that provides soul and sustenance to the likes of Iqbal, Salim and Mohammed, I’m considered a `safe bet’.  An avuncular pat from me can never really be mistaken for a wolfish pass – so why the pressing  need to be branded as my nieces, pray? When these hotties call me `uncle’, I gently remind them of the esteemed company they are in, and implore that they atleast pronounce it properly, ie UNKAAL..

Why can’t we ape the West, and use first names? Does it reek of familiarity? The kids at `Junior Master Chef’ always address their hosts by their first names – Gary, Anna, George. In the extremely popular `The Bold and the Beautiful’, Brooke routinely addressed Ridge’s parents as Eric and Stephanie. Ok, admittedly that was the wrong example, given the goings on in that serial, but you get the gist. The heavens don’t fall, the earth doesn’t tremble, and God continues to be in heaven, while all continues to be well on earth. 
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines `uncle’ as `brother of one’s father or mother’ or `aunt’s husband’. Yet, in the Indian subcontinent, any male family friend automatically becomes one’s uncle!  Take a stroll down any Army cantonment with your `lady wife’ (this term, peculiar to the Armed Forces of India and Pakistan, is so abhorrent, so vile, so cringe worthy that it deserves a separate blog post altogether!)  and you will encounter well mannered kids chanting in unison as they pass you “Good evening uncle, good evening aunty!"

So to all you nephews and nieces (particularly nieces) out there, take a cue from my grand niece Ria, all of four years old, resident of Seattle, USA. When she calls out to me in her shrill, delightful American accent "Hurreeesh!", I can all but lay the world at her feet!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

In the Name of the Father..

I love words. Love stringing them together – in prose, in verse. At school, I wrote the play that won us the Inter house dramatics competition. So writing, journalism should have been a natural career choice.  My father would have none of it. “You’re no Khushwant Singh, no Ruskin Bond!”

I was part of the school debating team, and did quite well. A lawyer wouldn’t be such a bad idea – in fact the principal suggested as much to my father. His reaction, when I broached the subject, was an acerbic “Stop reading Perry Mason!”  He would have none of it.

At college, I was part of a dramatics society called `Dramatique’. We performed Arthur Miller’s `All My Sons’ at the Film Institute auditorium. I played Chris, the idealistic younger son. Someone suggested I enrol for the glamorous acting course at the Institute. My father, of course, threw a fit. “I am not Raj Kapoor!”

When I suggested that I take up Arts at College – English literature, to be precise, it was my mother’s turn to throw her hands up in the air. Barely literate herself, she declared that Arts was for girls - boys always took Science (the fact that this great hypothesis was propounded in rustic Punjabi only added to the irony).

So when my sister and I passed out of school, she joined Arts at the nearby Wadia College, whereas I was made to take Science at the much further away Fergusson College! That was another gem - coming from parents who had never seen the inside of a college – that the `light as fluff’ Wadia was good enough for her, whereas I had to trudge to the more studious and staid Fergusson!

Today is Father’s Day.

Over four decades on, I can only smile at the well meaning whims of a man whose grasp of both reality as well as the potential of his son was tenuous at best. Also, as I ponder on how times have changed, I look back and think about how different I was from my father, and yet how much I’ve become like him.

Sure, things are different. He raised six children, including my niece (his granddaughter), whereas I have my hands full with just two.  I was 47 when I could afford my first car – a non-AC Maruti 800, bought through an Army loan from the CSD at Patiala, whereas my son was only 27 when he got his first – a sleek, midnight black Honda City!

When we were doing our Young Officer’s Course at Mhow, among 40 odd officers, only two had motor cycles – one Yezdi and one Enfield bullet retrofitted with a diesel hand pump engine!. Today’s YO’s all zip around on 150 cc Pulsars and Enticers! On our degree course, only one of us had a car – a modified jonga. Today, at the CME parking lot all you can see are Honda City’s and Hyundai i-20’s!

Is that a good thing? You bet it is! Should I feel jealous that these guys are having a blast that we couldn’t even dream of? Naah, perish the thought! I revel in the knowledge that they are free from the `hardships’ we went through (I bought my first fridge a good four years after marriage, and got my first cooking gas connection a good six years after!). I’m sure THEIR kids will see even better times, and three cheers to that!

Father’s Day is a concept marketed by Archie’s, I’m sure. But let me take the opportunity to indulge in a little nostalgia. I look at the portrait of my dad, stern and autocratic, and just smile, and choose to remember only the good times – Ok, I didn’t become a Khushwant Singh or even a Ruskin Bond – but I didn’t turn out too bad either..

My kids, I’m sure, will wish me a Happy Father’s Day – and I will hug them and say to myself – Ok, I made mistakes, but I tried..

I am my father now
The lines of my hands
Hold the fine compass
Of his going
I too shall follow
Through the eye of this needle
Of forgetfulness..