The father waddled up to me in the library and spoke in his whispers. “Oh! Look what I have found? I am going to become a force, and talk to Aunty by myself.”
It was a Tamil book: Learn Hindi Through Tamil. I looked amused. Hindi has always been the pain point in the household. I remember being a single digit age, lolling on the bed in our childhood home, a few weeks before our trip to New Delhi, and the mother was exhorting us to learn Hindi.
I was the only one who was technically qualified to say anything in Hindi because I was the only one who learnt the subject, but I use the term ‘learnt’ loosely. The teachers taught, I struggled. I always struggle with languages that force you to determine before hand whether a biscuit is masculine or feminine. Fine! Male biscuit! I say, and then it asks me, what about a dog? How does it matter whether the dog is a she-dog or he-dog? ( although I suppose it matters to the dog, I see that now. Hmm.) Okay, She – The dog is female. Then what about a dog-biscuit? Is that asexual. You see how confusing it all is?
We made it to Delhi after a thrilling ride on the train that took us several days and various experiments with Telugu, Marathi, Bihari, Urdu, Rajasthani and Hindi. One day, we went shopping in Delhi. We were told by our kind advisors that the thing to do in Delhi markets was to issue a prompt, “Baap re baap Bhaiya. Itna?!” (Oh my goodness me! This much?!). Like a ‘Hello’, you first belt out the Baap-Re-Baap. After that you are on sound ground, and can proceed to ask for a price less than half the asking price.
When we baap-re-baap-ed at this, our hosts told us that it is standard practice. Traders in that market priced goods at more than double for they knew it would come down to less than half, so it is a fair price game after all. I had no working knowledge of Economics then (or now), but this sounded wonkilicious.
So, we baap-re-baap-ed our way around the city.
In the crowded market, I heard the Baap-Re-Baap in the Pater’s voice emanate to much commotion. A soft voice was never his identifying feature. If he were an instrument in the band, he would be a trumpet, not the flute or the bagpipe.
The pater was bargaining hard. “Nahin, nahin. Pachees too much hai. Myn pachaas-heee givoonga, errrmm, day-oonga.” (“No no. 25 rupees is too much. I will give you only 50 rupees.” )
I went over to investigate the fracas, since more and more people were joining in to get a good seat on the show. The pater was driving the hard bargain.
I tried explaining in Tamil so folks watching the show would not understand: “Do you want to give Rs.15? He says the thing is Rs 25, and you are saying you will settle for Rs.50!”
The merchant was laughing to split, and several more were joining in by the minute. Finally, he said in perfect Tamil. “Saami – irupadhu kudu.” (Sir, just give Rs 20.)
After that, the association of market stall traders were most helpful – they pulled us into their stores and treated us to tea and more bargains. Who after all bargains to give more? Here was a soul of gold, they said to themselves, and went on to rip us off with perfect amiability.
I can’t say the decades in between taught very much more of the language. One could get by quite well in South India without Hindi.
Then, a few decades later, Aunty came to our household. She is a stellar help. She speaks Hindi and when excited switches to Urdu.
So, that day in the library, he was obviously thrilled that he found the book that promised to teach him Hindi through Tamil. That night, I heard the father proudly showing the ‘Learn Hindi through Tamil’ book to the mother, and telling her looking rather pleased with himself. “Look! The milk is here. Doodh yagaan hai!”
“Oh Look!” The father is a confirmed oh-look-er. “There is even a page for vegetables. Did you know aloo means potato? ”
The mother, always up to the challenge, told him that it was admirable, and said coolly. “Tomorrow, ask Aunty to cut the peerkangai (ridge gourd) into small squares, and keep the scrapped tholi (hide)”.
The father turned to the vegetable page, exclaiming loudly that it was a marvelous book, and asks like this are child’s play. Bacchaas–play. After a few minutes, he yipped loudly. “There is no translation for peerkangai in the book. I cannot ask her. Should I ask her to peel the bhindi instead? Vendakkai means Bhindi.” (Okra is vendakkai)