Should Okras Be Peeled?

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. Bacchaasplay. 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)

“Life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it.” – ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Potato Vs Radish Miming Competition

A Gujarati lady (let’s call her Geeta Ben) comes in and helps me with the cooking once in a while. She talks in what she thinks is Hindi and I do the same. I think my Hindi is better though. I told her to use very little oil and no sugar in her dishes. The ‘No sugar’ was a bit of a blow to her, but she bore it stoically, shook her head and added a disclaimer that she was not sure how the dishes would turn out without sugar and very little oil. She tried anyway. They turned out to be fabulous.

The usual fare is some chappatis, a few aloo parathas for the daughter and a side dish or two. I don’t think our conversations can bear any more than that.

A sample of our conversation is presented for your reference:

Once our small talk is complete Geeta Ben asks for “Aadu” (‘Aadu’ in Tamil means ‘goat’ incidentally. I can be pretty sharp when I want to and rule out the possibility of Geeta Ben asking for a goat to make a vegetarian dinner. )


“Haan aadhu – soonth na adhu”

Apart from the “Haan”, the rest pretty much washed over me. I try to clear my fuzzy brain by guessing that she has the chillies, she has the garlic, it must be ginger that she is asking for and say “You mean Adhrak?” Years of fantasizing about ‘Adhrak Chai’ leave me in no doubt that Adhrak is ginger. But Geeta Ben disagrees.

“Na – aadhu – aaisa” and she mimes a ginger for me.

I’ve played dumb-charades in my time. (I can’t say I am stellar, but I manage. I have some blogs on Dumb-C that I will have to get to one day), but I have to admit ‘Ginger’ would have had me stumped. How do you enact a piece of Ginger for the audience? Yet Geeta Ben doesn’t flinch. She gives off a performance of a carrot, but I reach for the ginger anyway. She congratulates me on my quick wit (in Gujarati) and I beam. She could well be calling me a dumb ass but she would not do that. Geeta Ben is too sweet for that – she has an innocence about her that makes it hard for people of her caliber to call people dumb-asses.

And so it goes: Geeta Ben gets her laugh; we get tasty food.

Some friends of ours had come to stay with us for a few days and it so happened that Geeta Ben wanted to come in at a time we were not sure we would be home. But our friends(Mr and Mrs Friend) said they would be home then and off we all went after telling Geeta Ben to hop on over. I could have told her that my friends would be home, but I did not want to risk saying something like that on the phone. Once before I got chatty on the phone with her and she thought she was not supposed to come and went off to the Temple. So, Geeta Ben knocked and my friend opened the door. Poor Geeta Ben’s smile went halfway through and then recognition hit. Her smile froze when Mrs Friend welcomed her into the house. She first tried peering past her to see if she had the right house. The decor seemed to indicate the right house.  She asked her, “Shoma Ben?” Mrs friend assured her it was my house and welcomed her once again.

Poor Geeta Ben took a few steps into the house and stopped hard in her tracks. See, she could take a friend opening the door, but she hadn’t really bargained for the next scene. There was Mr Friend lounging around on the sofa with a glazed look on his face in his banian. Mr Friend was working, and when working, he dons a look that stumps the best of us. It knocked the wind out of Geeta Ben. She ran past him into the kitchen and took refuge in her work. Just when Geeta Ben put her mind to rest and started off with the dishes, Mrs Friend conveyed my request to make Mooli Parathas(radish parathas).


“Haan Mooli.”

“Nahin aloo na aloo”

“No – aloo nahin – mooli paratha”

“Magar mien Aloe paratha hee banathee hewn”, (I always make aloo parathas) says Geeta Ben making round ball like movements with hands – falling to her time-tested habit of miming potatoes when in the presence of the weak Hindied. The miming catches on and Mrs Friend tries miming a radish.


It was during the radish vs potato miming competition that the husband walked in and Geeta Ben breathed again. At least she was in the right house. She knows better than to ask for clarifications to the husband in Hindi. An encounter in Hindi with the husband is not for the weak of heart. She makes a brave face that all is not lost in the house and Radishes or Potatoes, Mr & Mrs Friend or no, she will make what she is told before the husband starts explaining in Hindi.

She almost hugged me when I came into the kitchen and half apologetically asked me whether Mooli parathas was what I conveyed. I nodded and her heart resumed beating at a normal speed again. Bless Geeta Ben!