Vinay my nephew based in Toronto, Canada and I were chatting few Sundays back on WhatsApp video and somehow the conversation turned to some language howlers. He then mentioned an incident happened the previous day. He was checking the features of a mobile phone in a shop and the sales guy at the shop was explaining the virtues – sorry features of the phone. Vinay then received a call from his sister in law from London and started talking to her in Tamil, our mother tongue. When he finished the call, the sales guy asked him, “are you Tamil?” Vinay said yes. The sales guy started talking to him in Tamil immediately (there are many Sri Lankan Tamils in Canada).
Adarsh my other nephew who was in the group call, immediately said that he had a similar experience in Mumbai. Based in the maximum city as a GET, he was getting his morning breakfast, the South Indian staple, Idli from a street vendor. Adarsh continued, “I always talked to the vendor in Hindi. Yesterday I saw a guy walking in and asking the vendor, “அண்ணாச்சி நாலு இட்லி கொடுங்க” (Bro give me 4 idlis).
I told both of them – discovering someone can speak your own language in an unexpected land is not that odd and narrated when I first found that out. It was the summer of 1979. My friend Shivaji (no relation to the great Maratha Warrior) and I were spending our annual vacation at our respective aunts’ places. My blog about my aunt appeared first here The Santa Claus Chitti. Every day Shivaji and I used to meet and went around for sightseeing and had something in a restaurant.
Those days I could not speak a word of Hindi and Shivaji had passed the first Hindi exam, very elementory – prathamik. It kind of made him an expert in Hindi but in actuality he could speak just few sentences. Armed with this vast vocabulary, we would ask for directions, buy movie tickets and order food in restaurants.
One day we arrived at the restaurant which we frequented, at a time, which was late for breakfast and early for lunch. The waiter said ‘not available’ for our first couple of orders. Shivaji was now struggling to ask the waiter what was there we could eat if what we ordered was not available. He remembered all the words he learnt in Hindi, put few of them together and blurted out what we thought of asking him. In walked another diner and asked the waiter in pure Tamil, “இப்போ என்ன சாப்பிட கிடைக்கும்?” -what can I get to eat now?
In that year 1979 and many years that followed I also learned about the ‘direction giving skills of Bombayites or ‘Mumbaikars’ as they preferred to be called now. In Bombay you are given only one tip/advise/instruction when you ask for direction – ‘सीधे जाओ’ – seedhe jav which means ‘go straight.’ It does not matter how many left, right, about and U turns you need to take to arrive at the destination. You will always be guided to go straight.
Before you continue, let me remind the readers that ‘maps’ was a rarity in India those days. I am not sure if it was because of the Colonial Official Secrets Act or due to economical reasons. If the act had continued to present day, India would never have got Google Maps and you can’t order food in Uber eats or book a cab. Or may be the Government believed the Tamil adage – வாயில் இருக்குது வழி meaning you just have to open your mouth and ask for direction. Why print maps and waste money?
Anyway let us get back to the direction scenarios.
You are in Marine Drive in Mumbai and want to go to the Taraporevala Aquarium. You are not sure should you go north or south. You ask for direction and you are told (if you are facing the right direction) – ‘सीधे जाओ’ – seedhe jav – go straight. Perfect – as you can see from the map below (Courtesy Google Map). As long as you are sticking to the main road hugging the shore, you will get there.
This is little more complicated. You got down at Marine Lines Station on the Western Railway Suburban line, came out of the station and asked someone “How do I go to Taraporevala Aquarium.” You would be told the same thing, “सीधे जाओ’ – seetdhe jav – go stright.” Just check this out – how is this straight? Go figure
OK you say. I will take one straight road and as soon as I hit the dead end, before jumping into Arabian Sea, I will ask for direction again and I will be told to go straight, which will take me to the Aquarium.
But things can get more complicated and you will be still be told the same thing. Now assume you are getting down at VT station (CST) and want to walk down to the Aquarium. Yes. You must have guessed the answer now. Same – “सीधे जाओ’ – seedhe jav – go straight.” Check this.
I think I have mentioned about this in my blog about Mumbai – Mumbai – the Maximum City.
But one guy who took some revenge on this language thing is Mohan Ram. Actually it is 50:50 he won one and lost one. Let’s start with the one where he lost.
Mohan Ram had just qualified to become a doctor in 1987 and came to visit JK and I in Pune. We went for a short break to Mumbai and returned by train. As soon as we got out of Shivaji Nagar station, it started to rain heavily and took shelter just outside the station. This was not the main exit but just an opening where part of the iron rod fence which was broken, enough for people to squeeze out.
A vendor selling onions from a cart also took shelter there. Mohan Ram who had observed us buying vegetables in the past week took couple of strides, approached the vendor and asked – kandha kya bau hai meaning ‘what is the price of onion?’ The vendor quoted a price and Mohan told him that the price was high (zyada bolra hai). As soon he uttered these words he regretted ever speaking in Hindi/Marathi (he did not know the difference of course)! The vendor launched a huge tirade, in Marathi, on why the price is high. He started with, I think the origin of onion growing India or the Bengal famine of 1905 to the present day drought conditions in Maharashtra, the unusual rains after the end of monsoon, road conditions between Nasik and Pune, avaricious middlemen who made small vendors’ lives miserable and few other local, national and international issues which affect onion prices. It went for about ten to fifteen minutes
Mohan was dumbstruck. He did not understand a word that was spoken and thought he said something which was made the vendor angry and he was shouting. Fortunately the rains had stopped by then and we retrieved Mohan Ram and walked home. Round one to the local.
This should have taught us a lesson and not let Mohan even at a shouting distance near local language speaking people. But fate intervened. On the last day of his visit, Mohan was packing his suitcase but could not fit in all the washed but rumpled cloths in it. I told him if he pressed the cloths they could fit in the suitcase and said, “Just get down the stairs. There is an ironing shop to the left of the building. Tell him, ‘Ardha Kanta mein dedoo,’ and he will give the cloths back in half an hour.”
Mohan collected the cloths and went down. He did not come up in the next fifteen minutes and I asked JK to go down and check. I thought the shop was closed or the guy was not there and Mohan was waiting for him. JK went down and witnessed something which is still in our collective memory after thirty two years.
When JK went to the shop he saw Mohan and the presswala staring at each other. JK asked Mohan what happened and he told him, “Like you said, I asked him to give the cloths in ‘arda ghanta’ (half an hour) but he is not agreeing. JK asked the guy what happened. He was holding his head with his hands and said, “Sir what can I tell you. He asked me to give the cloths back in ardha ghanta and I told him, no problem you can take it in ‘bees minute,’ meaning ‘twenty minutes.’ He just kept repeating, “Bees Minute nahi, ardha ghanta” meaning not twenty minutes but half an hour. Mohan obviously thought twenty minutes is longer than half an hour and kept saying, “bees minute nahi, ardha ghanta” like a parrot.
The shopkeeper told JK, “Sir if he had given the cloths to me I would have finished pressing by now. Where did you find this guy?”
I think, if JK had not gone down and resolved the stalemate, Mohan Ram would be still be standing there even today after thirty two years uttering ardha ghanta, just like Casabianca waited for his father’s orders on the burning deck.
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
Featured Image: Renuka