Saturday, 13 December 2014

Lingua Indica

Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash
I am no scholar of linguistics. My knowledge of languages is limited to two - Hindi, being my mother tongue, and English, being my tongue. Yes my tongue, thanks to a convent education. And so the entire German-Sanskrit, three-language formula, four-language formula, five-language formula etc have left me quite amused and huff-puff.....breathless too. Counting the number of languages in the formula is no less of an effort than actually learning them.

My proficiency in German consists of..ahem...knowing the meaning of all of TWO words - Achtung ("Attention" - who can forget the U2 song Achtung Baby?!) and Das (meaning "the"). My understanding of "Das" is courtesy Karl Marx - Das Kapital, and Volkswagen - Das Auto. Of course, I thought Volkswagen was pronounced as it was written in English, till I saw the Hindi signboards. And actually, when I first came across "Das Kapital", while mugging up 'Books and Authors' in General Knowledge books as a child, I thought it meant Ten Capitals (of maybe ten countries in the world! Das means ten in Hindi, you see).

Sanskrit is another story. Shabd Roops and Dhatu Roops kept getting complicated. The difficult level was an upward rising curve, from 5th standard to 8th standard. Needless to say that the marks were situated on a downward sloping curve. One positive aspect of Sanskrit education was that finally, after 6 years of formal schooling, I could understand why the last consonant of the Devanagari script अः (Ahh) existed - of course, to be used in Sanskrit! It is said that Sanskrit is the mother of Hindi. So, like all rebellious daughters, Hindi used her mom's favourite Ahh sparingly and most spitefully. And so we have Ahh appearing in horrible words like प्रातः "praatahh", meaning early morning. Who loves early mornings, pray? But how was a small, primary school girl to understand that? I was still hanging on to my mother's pallu then.

A new language came into my life when I went to reside in the "only one of its kind" linguistically divided state - Tamil Nadu. Tamil...! No தமிழ்  Thamizh. Anyways, from not knowing a single word of it, I can now speak a few words. My early experience of living in தமிழ் நாடு Thamizh Nadu helped improve my acting skills. You see, I was communicating wholly and solely through mime. I guess the same happens when Tamil students come to Pusa Institute, Delhi, for studying agriculture. They have perfected the art of mime and so, no cultural programme in any Civil Services academy is complete without a brilliant mime by Tamil civil servants, mostly from the Pusa Institute! 

Anyways, the mime soon changed into some pigdin Tamil (not Thamizh). Whenever I speak Tamil in front of my North Indian friends, and family, they are so impressed! They look at me in amazement and compliment me on my "fluent" Tamil. I enjoy all the compliments and strut about with my chest all puffed out. Why do they need to know that if my Thamizh friends had heard what I had said, they would have had to take some anti-spasmodic to stop the stomach-ache they would have got from laughing. May be they would have given their maids a day off as the house would be clean because of their rolling on the floor laughing (ROFL in Internet-ese), and they couldn't possibly eat because of the stomach-ache explained before. So no cooking required either.

However, I have had my share of Tamil-shocks too. A few months in TN and someone asked me if I would like to eat Sholay for lunch. I was shocked. How could anyone eat a movie? A little more use of my bird brain horrified me further. What if "Sholay" is code or short for "Kalia : Sardar maine aapka namak khaya hai...Gabbar : Toh ab goli kha!" ?!  Mercifully, what appeared at the lunch table was the good old innocuous "chholey"..........and I learnt that in Tamil, 'sa' , 'sha', 'cha' and 'chha' are all interchangeably used. In fact, in Thamizh, there is only ச  'cha'. Still, this concept took a while to take roots in my mind. And so, during my first posting in Madurai, when someone brought a file concerning a "church" case, I kept looking for a church in it. Alas, I could only find a tax-evading financial company, which had been searched under Section 132 of the Income Tax Act, 1961 : hence a "search" case! And in the next few months, I did see a lot more of these "church" cases.

Every language and dialect has its own peculiarities. In Bihar, my home state, there is no difference between "pen"and "pain". Probably, someone in the early days of English education, during the British Raj, did not like to write; and so termed the "pen" as a big "pain" in his life, and the pronunciation stuck. In the Hadauti region of Rajasthan, "sa" is pronounced as "ha", much like in Asom (Ahom). So "Bachche So rahe hain" (kids are sleeping) becomes "Bachche Ho rahe hain" (kids are being born)!

In Bihar, the words "Kaahe ka" mean "why?". In UP, "Kaahe ka" means "made of what?". So, when my mother-in-law, from Lucknow, first came to visit my husband and me, she would sit at the dining table and ask me "Kaahe ki Sabzi hai?" (What is this vegetable curry made of?) Poor, foolish me kept thinking "Doesn't she know why vegetable curries are made? To eat, of course!" But in India, the Saas-Bahu game is always on, and I thought maybe it was a quiz she took to examine my philosophy with respect to food, poverty, hunger, healthy eating etc. I guess the UPSC hangover is hard to get rid off!

So, with all this experience under my belt, my relationship with the latest language in my life,  ગુજરાતી Gujarati, has so far been quite amicable. Except in the beginning, when a shopkeeper called me મોટી બેન  Moti Ben. OMG, was the shopkeeper rude and impudent! How dare he call me fat! (Moti means fat in Hindi). Had he ever looked in the mirror and seen his own pot belly? Or was he delusional, thinking that it was actually a pot that covered his six-pack abs?! (Happy New Year had not been released by then and a six-pack, not an eight-pack, was the gold standard for male figures). I didn't want to create a scene, and so, I managed to keep all my knives, daggers, swords, drones, RPGs and IEDs, and even Sunny Deol's hand-pump, inside my imagination. The next day, I started on a vigourous diet-and-exercise regime. Two days later, I was back to snacking on potato chips slumped on the couch before the TV. I had, by then, discovered, that "moti" in Gujarati means "big"or "elder". Hence, "Moti Ben" meant "big sister" or "elder sister" !

Anyways, whatever the outcome of the present German-Sanskrit debate - doesn't matter to me. What matters is that I'm way past school and don't have to learn either !! Language was made for communication and for creating understanding among people. But all I've seen languages creating is confusion. Maybe the cavemen's pictorial script was the real language. My kids have been practicing it quite a bit as evident from the walls of our home. Who knows, before they reach the stage when the German-Sanskrit debate becomes real for them, the pictorial script may have become a game-changer...?!!

Image courtesy : Sharang Prakash and Aadyant Prakash
Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash


  1. Made a nice reading!
    And yes, after reading this article - the quiz masters would have one ready question: "What is the link between a maid and ROFL" ;)

    1. Thanks Anand! Your quiz question is itself rofl.... :-)

  2. Beautiful read Shubrata. Loved it. Recently I have this set of painters from Asian paints who came tod o Painting in my house and to my surprise are from village close to Chapra from our very own Bihar. And their usage of words like garda, dhanmana gayi, sutal hai , uthal hai got me thinking on similar lines. At the end of the day it is all communication. A lot of these words don't make any sense in any language but when they are spoken with that expression you understand them. :-)

    1. Thanks, Shweta! I can totally identify....and one feels good hearing words like garda (lol) ..and even the yucky "petjhadi"..! A friend of ours in the US had a nanny of Bhojpuri origin who used words like "sut gayee" and "god" :-D