This friday I made a startling discovery in the office. It was four pm and as usual I was busy battling with the printer to get a couple of important print-outs. After twenty minutes of pressing all the buttons on the printer and some on the adjoint shredder for good measure I was forced to call in the local IT expert. We gathered around the printer trying to make sense of the teeny two line LCD display and the absurd messages it flashed at two minute intervals. It was a rather newish HP printer that was loaded with the latest in cutting-edge customer friendly software which ensures "thousands of trouble-free printer outs". The IT expert soon smiled to himself and set to work. 'It takes a deft hand you know" he said, as he switched the printer off and then on again. After warming up for sometime it flashed "Paper Jam" quickly three times in quick succession, made a gleeful choking sound and then triumphantly went quite. The LCD display said, with a resounding look of self-satisfaction, "Phyrds Uykl 33". My IT expert confirmed that this was not one of the listed responses in the customer-friendly infomation booklet and may take some more time and effort to repair. I was frustrated, it was already 4:30 and I had to get that print-out or it would be the end of my weekend. In a fit of rage I asked him: "Kya fax machine kaam kar raha hai?..."
Silence settled on the office suddenly yet quietly, briefly reminding me of several occasions when the Non-veg Kebab platter was brought to the table at Tomatoes in Ahmedabad. But soon that memory faded when the IT expert turned to me and said. "Kar rahi hai..., Fax machine kaam kar rahi hai..." I was curtly reminded of the fact that in the Hindi language the Fax Machine, that block of pastic, electronics, and heavily miniaturised cd-changer full of assorted beeping noises, was indeed a female. I apologised and just to show that I had caught on, I sashayed over to her, the fax machine, and picked up one of the many pieces of paper in her inbox. I stood ramrod straight, looked out over the office full of expectant eyes and said "Yeh fax bahut acchi hai..." The ensuing rush of Tangdi Kebab memories meant I had goofed up again. Damn it!! I can never get Hindi...
It all begins many years ago. Back when i was just a kid with all the good looks, snappy wit and dreamy eyes I have today but a little less facial hair. Overhearing what my dad told the cabbie everyday I quickly picked up my first words of Hindi. "Doosre Parking sign se right lena". When I turned old enough to travel in a Cab on my own I confidently mouthed those words just after the cab went past the roundabout. Of course I never knew what they meant exactly. But having seen many Hindi movies I worked it out to mean, roughly of course, "please take me to that red building with the grocery shop on the front near the parking.". One friday evening coming back from a friend's birthday party the cabbie went the other way around the colony and I was put in a spot. I tried saying 'doosre parking se right lena' a couple of times in succession, but I was soon very lost and was subject to interesting Hindi from the cabby some of which I continue to decipher to this day. (An interesting usage involving "stupid kid", "large piece of wood', and "back side" haunts me in sleep sometimes...)
Ironically this did not mean I was bad in Hindi at school. Oh no no. On the other hand I did pretty good in the subject. My mother, quickly noted that I was languishing in the low "F"s in Hindi while even in Physical Education I was scoring commendable "middle-D"s. I was quickly put on a regime of daily one hour sessions of Hindi which involved committing to memory large tracts of Hindi poetry and prose, not even leaving out the merest of punctuation marks. It would go:yadda yadda yadda full stop, yadda, comma, yadda yadda exclamation mark. I was soon regurgitating my way into the statospheric high-Bs in Hindi. All this without understanding a word of what I was committing to memory. (Students out there should not try this yourself. Especially if your learning neurosurgery, nuclear detonation and stuff like that.) There were rude shocks to this strategy of course. Once, in a fit of uncalled for spontaneity, my Hindi teacher slipped in a short essay question into the half-yearly exam. To be written in, shudder, your own words.
For half an hour I watched, with loathing in my eyes, my hindi-speaking classmates hunched over whipping up paeans on the "Weather of your home state", or "The importance of science" depending on which one they chose. Finally I picked up my pencil and went for it. For the next two weeks, every Hindi class, I held my breath as the Hindi teacher walked in, hoping that she was not carrying a pile of thin pink test notebooks. One of those notebooks had a brief description of the rains of kerala in a language that was a melange of bad hindi, english and malayalam. All in devanagri script of course. Then one day she walked in with those books and there was much laughing, roaring of rips and loss of self esteem after that.
But there was no respite. I tried picking up bits and pieces from the weekly Hindi movie on TV but then how many 7th standard essays can you write with an assorted vocabulary of haraam zaades, khoon pee jaoonga and rishte me mein tere baap something something. (Though I did manage to once start an essay on domestic animals with the words "Duniya mein do tarah ke pashu hote hain, domestic and wild...")
And as the years went by things were getting difficult. In class 9th I begged my dad to let me shift to french. Everyone else in the school did, bar 10 or so people. And I was one of them. While the french guys gallivanted with their foreign textbooks and 95+ percent class averages we struggled with Subhadrakumari Chauhan and Harivanshrai Bacchan. Mind you I am sure the poetry was immaculate and the prose was stirring. The native hindi-speakers often rose in raptures when our teacher explained some of the finer points of some of the poems. I did understand some of the couplets by Kabeer and Tulsidas. Alas the inevitable happened, I flunked in Hindi. Out of a maximum possible 100 marks I had scored 16 in total. 8 marks came from some fill in the blank type question set and some true-or-false type questions.
This of course meant I needed to get private tuition. In hindsight Mr. Tripathi looked exactly like Amitabh Bhachchan in Bunty and Babli. He always wore Ray-bans, had that rustic charm around him and spoke English like a true Hindi teacher. "Next month fool reeveezun okay?" The first day he came he spoke to me non-stop about how he was trying to get a driving license and had been at it for years. In chaste Hindi. It was not a gentle baptism. By the end of the year I had learnt well. My hindi was ok, but my real skill was at listening to people and nodding my head at the just the right spots without understanding a single word. Tripathi sir got his license on the seventh attempt or so.
Of course its not all my fault you know. Hindi is a terrible language if your not tuned in well enough. There's that gender problem of course. Every bloody thing has to be male or female. Hindi-speakers do not enjoy the comfort of an ambiguous "it". Ask them how they know whats a "he" and whats not and they will just smile. Yes we mallus might speak like the babbling of a brook, but we know better than to make a coconut palm a he. Or a she. Dammit. (No but it has nuts jokes please.)
Then there is the merciless use of emphasis to add a little twist into an already infuriating language. How many mallus have been laughed at for downing a few drinks, raising there arms and singing out loud "Khajra Re" instead of "Kajra Re". Oh yes and we can never get enough of the "Hahahah he said KANA instead of KHANA..." little witticism. That pronounciation will be the end of me. I have often made my maid at home think she is a close male relation. She burns the dal when I do that.
But I think its all a huge conspiracy. A conspiracy to poke fun at non-natives. Otherwise why would have a perfect ek, do, teen, char, sade char, sade paanch system. And then screw it all up with dhed, dhai, savva and other hideous fractions. Only so that around lunch time in the office they can ask you the time and then grin and titter when you say saade ek. Those fractions can have no other purpose. Once I went all around Wadala market trying to flaunt my knowledge of dhed, savva, dhai and so forth. I was out buying vegetables but very soon it all fell apart. By the time I was done shopping I had enough provisions to cook a small bowl or two of rice, several tons of karela sabji with a kilo or two of salt thrown in. It was a disaster. But whenever I go back there is a sparkle in the eyes of them vendors. Especially the karela guy.
But according to me the greatest conspiracy of all is expressly meant to prevent mallus, tams, gults and the like from marrying into Hindi-speaking families. It is a move of ethnic-purity maintenance par excellence. In a flash of brilliance they have ensured that no sanity-loving young boy will ever woo a hindi-speaking maiden if he did not know the language himself. To ensure you never fit in, the Hindi language has created a puzzling array of terms for every possible relationship in the family. So by the time you are done meeting the Chacha, chachi, bhabhi, jija, nana, nani, kaka, dada, dadi, lala, mama, mami, potha, pothi, tau and of course the didi of devar fame, you no longer know who is married to whom and who fathered whom. Soon you are frothing at the mouth, your head is spinning and in a fit of confusion request your girlfriend for her second cousin's hand in marriage... master stroke I tell you... I once even called someone at a very hindi dominated wedding a "bhajji" by mistake. Thankfully they were not from Chennai and did not realize I was calling them deep fried vegetable in gram flour dough.
Aha. But try we must. The other day a Taxi driver incessantly harangued me for an hour from Bandra to Wadala in the purest, most passionate marathi. I nodded, sombrely hmmed and once, just past the Don Bosco church, laughed with him heartily at a particularly lewd joke. I never understood a single word of what he said. Tripathi had taught me well indeed. Anyways it is a working day and I must go now. As I once heartily proclaimed while leaving a friend's house in delhi, "Chalo mein ja rahi hoon..." Yes you can laugh now, haraam zaade... zaadi... zaada...Crap.
p.s. I have just been told my a close confidante that lala is not actually a bonafide Hindi relation. In place of that please read phoopha. No I am serious.