Friday, October 21, 2011

How clean is your milk?

In an earlier post, I wrote about how we struggled to settle into a new life in Mumbai after living overseas for several years. I continue on that same theme in this post too...

After living nearly 20 years overseas, my Tamil, Kannada and Hindi had gone quite rusty. On reading the above, please do not make the assumption that my Tamil/Kannada/Hindi was on solid footing at some point. To make that assumption would be a bit like Himesh Reshamaiyya saying he could not sing on the night because he had temporarily lost his voice! 

One aspect of re-settling into a life in India that did scare me initially was language. I was worried I would continually make an ass of myself. Even though life had prepared me, through a series of valuable experiential learning opprtunities, to recover well from a series of seemingly hopeless and relentless "Oh!I made an ass of myself... Again!" situations, not being able to communicate in an articulate manner was something that bothered me a lot. 

So, our initial few months were spent polishing and practicing our Hindi. We had to communicate with people effectively in Hindi and it had to be 'reasonably perfect Hindi' we thought. It was only later that we realized that anything goes in terms of Hindi in Mumbai.

But the initial few months were frustrating. We had to interact with numerous tradespeople, workers and suppliers. It seemed as though we just could not get things right in terms of communication.

I believe deficiencies in language are brought out maximally when one is frustrated and/or angry. In those initial months we would often sputter and flounder maximally when we were frustrated with tradespeople or furniture delivery people. 

No one would arrive at the appointed time and those that did would often not bring the required tools or equipment with them. And this would inevitably mean more delays in an already delayed process. Getting the right words out was always a struggle in those desperate moments. We would often launch into English or Tamil in the middle of a high-pitched Hindi-based diatribe. We would then look at each other and break into a laugh. 

Try yelling in a language that you are not totally comfortable with! 

Sometimes we would translate from English to Hindi and get it messed up totally. For example, in response to a request from a friend for us to visit their place on a very busy day for us, I blurted out: "patha nahin yaar. kaan se khelna padega" ("I'm really not sure. We will have to play it by ear?").

A colleague of mine insisted on speaking with me only in Hindi. Indeed he took it on as a challenge that I would be proficient in written and spoken Hindi before I completed my contract in India and before I headed back to Australia! 

In one particular meeting that both of us attended, I wanted to communicate to this colleague that the situation we faced was almost impossible. It was a bad "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. 

The first phrase that came to my mind to describe our situation was "We are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea". The next thought was "We are the meat in the sandwich". And the third was "We are caught between a rock and a hard place".

So, here I was, saying to this colleague: "hum shaitaan aur neela samundar ke beech mein khade hain!" That comment sank faster than a Uday Chopra movie! 

So, I used the next option and rattled off confidently, "hum bread ke beech mein ghost ban gaye"At that point, all blood drained from my colleagues face. He looked like a bit of a 'ghost' himself!

I gave up on attempting the third phrase. Had I tried, my colleague would have picked up a rock and flung it in my direction.

Translation from one language to another just does not work. 

For example, on another occasion a friend of ours was visiting us. They struggle with their Hindi as much as we do. We were talking about a mutual friend of ours who had a large farm in Australia. Now this common friend specialized in growing fruits and vegetables on his farm. I asked how this friend was doing. In response, after a quick translation, pat came the reply, "Woh to ab ghay me ghus gaya" ("he has entered a cow")!

I immediately choked on the samosa that I was munching! The picture of a hapless Malcolm being stuck in a cow's underbelly was both funny and tragic! It was only when I did a literal re-translation did I realize that what was meant was, "He has gotten into cows now!"

There are several similar lovely examples of single-language (mainly English-to-Hindi) translations, particularly in those early days that provided us with much mirth and also significant learning opportunities! But it is when one has to do a double-translation to convey meaning that you lose the plot quicker than a Himesh Reshamaiyya melody!

An early classic was when Girija was trying to communicate to our maid that yogurt had to be cultured. Now "culturing yogurt" is a process and we hadn't got to that degree of refinement in our language construction. We were struggling with nouns and adjectives in those days. This was a difficult phase. When we got gender right, we'd often launch a week-long celebration! So, pronunciation or lyrical efficiency were not top on the priority list! We had not yet got to mastering the Hindi equivalent for the activity/process of "culturing yogurt".

However, the activity had to be communicated to the maid.

So, what does one do? Girija's mind quickly jumped to the nearest possible translation opportunity, which was to translate from Tamil to English and then, from English to Hindi! Now, in Tamil, this process of culturing yogurt is known as "tozhkaradu". Indeed that word in Tamil is common to the process of "culturing yogurt" and "washing clothes".

So, here we were, on a Monday morning, about to rush out to work. Girija communicated a series of instructions to the maid and remembered that yogurt had to be cultured for the first time at home since we moved to Mumbai.

So she said, "arre haan. aaaj doodh ko... doodh ko... matlab... [double-translation affected effortlessly from Tamil-to-English-to-Hindi]... haaaan! doodh ko dhona hai!" ("Oh yes, the milk needs to.. needs to... I mean... the milk needs to be washed!"

The maid looked at us as though we had just descended from another planet! She must have thought that we were funny people with weird tastes. She slowly re-attached her jaw to her face. She probably did not know what to say. She wanted to laugh, and she did. A bit. But she wanted to be polite too. She also had no idea what we meant and was scared she was taking on a task that would eventually land her in trouble. 

So, she stared at us blankly and said somewhat innocently, "Madam, doodh ko kaise dhona hai? vaise bhi, doodh to safed hi hai" ("Madam, how do I wash milk? In any case, the milk is already white!")

We ran out of the house. 

We purchased ready-set yogurt that evening! 

-- Mohan (@mohank)

Ps: The right phrase for that process is "doodh to jamana hai"


  1. Anonymous11:07 pm

    Another delightful post. :-)

    Btw, what is "between a rock..." in Hindi - "patthar aur kadak jagah ke beech mein"?


  2. Very interesting and witty article... I could relate to the translation problems I faced myself when my Tamil-English combo was beaten outright against communicating with the Kannada launderer.. He tried to translate Kannada into the little Hindi that he knew and I tried to grasp it with the very little Hindi that I know .. Man that was hilarious..

  3. @Bhel: I'll certainly use that translation next time, although I'm not sure the meaning is conveyed adequately :)

    @GS: Please do provide some examples. I'd love to hear more!

    - Mohan

  4. @Bhel: I'll certainly use that translation next time, although I'm not sure the meaning is conveyed adequately :)

    @GS: Please do provide some examples. I'd love to hear more!

    - Mohan

  5. Ha ha Mohan. Late to this blog..nevertheless, here's an example from the North Karnataka lingo "Baraanv barthaana, hogaanv hoekkaan, keLorilla, heLorilla!" This is intended to convey that there's no control on the populace entering and exiting these august portals. And of course a teacher translated this literally to "Comer comes, goer goes, no asker, no teller!"