(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 6th September 2008)
"What is kuzhandhai?" a friend of mine, who has recently moved to Chennai from Mumbai asked.
"And the thing you eat with rice is kuzhambu, right?"
"And God forbid you mix the two of them up," her husband, who has always lived in Chennai, called out from the next room, "you don't want to end up telling the waiter you'd like to have a baby."
Visions of a horrified waiter at a '100% Pure Vegetarian Restaurant' being asked benignly to serve up vaththa kuzhandhai to a sweetfaced woman, whose external appearance showed no signs of a propensity to consume the young ones of her species, swam through our heads.
"You South Indians!" my friend said, with a sigh and shake of the head, "po da means one thing, po di means one thing, podi means one thing, podu means one thing, paadu means one thing..."
"Actually," another friend said, contemplatively, "most of those can mean more than one thing, you know..."
It felt good to be on the knowledgeable side. My move to Delhi, having grown up bilingual, and having chosen to learn Spanish so I could make attempts to understand online radio commentary for matches between Boca Juniors and River Plate, was quite gutsy. At the time, of course, I had no clue quite how much an impediment it would turn out to be that my knowledge of Hindi, practical and theoretical, came from a year of overheard conversations in Urdu between my Afghan and Pakistani roommates. My first hint came when my requests for a mirror, in a combination of English and sign language, left me with curtains, a drinking glass and a rather kind gesture from my landlady, who came all the way upstairs to show me the window.
A few months down the line, I forgot the Hindi word for "pickle", and was offered rice, curd, a whole potato, some dough and a ripe mango before I had the presence of mind to call up a colleague and ask for the word. Of course, that meant enduring witticisms about being "in a pickle" for the rest of my career at the company I was working in.
I went on to top all my linguistic underachievements one day, at the canteen. I remember the moment vividly. There was rasmalai, and I couldn't find a bowl for it. So I approached the caterer and said, politely, "bhaiyya, rasmalai ek kachauri mein de deejiye".
"Ji, madam?" he asked, after a long, blank stare, hoping he'd misheard.
"Rasmalai ek kachauri mein de deejiye," I repeated calmly, and then, spying a few bowls at the back, pointed usefully, "vahaan rakha hua hai."
"Katori, madam?" the caterer asked, relieved.
In a country like India, where the dialect changes every few kilometres and the language changes about every hundred in a given direction, I think the solution is, sign language should be made the official one of the nation. Think of the luxury long, boring speeches (or the absence thereof) would offer. What better time to catch up with your friends without being silenced! Of course, the national pastime of interrupting people would take a beating. But one might be able to pull it off – and, the only way to interrupt an anecdote in sign language would result in a fistfight, so all the better.
And think of the impact it would have on the movies! It is too late to reverse the piano roll that signalled a transition to Switzerland in the dream song sequences of the eighties and nineties, but we might just be in time to avoid a retro revolution. Besides, surely the sign language version of "Aashiq Banaya Apne" would have been...umm...what's the politically correct phrase...more pleasant on the ears? And think of the communal harmony that would prevail if we were to communicate with just sign language. If you don't get this, you clearly haven't read the Pope vs. Sardar joke. Well, a Google search should set you straight. Of course, certain political parties might have to disband, but then again, they shouldn't have much trouble raking up other controversies. What I'd really like to watch, though, would be a session in parliament, where politicians attempt to wade through six page speeches with sign language in six minutes. We just might have a lot of athletic parliamentarians at the end of it all, and the Speaker could likely find a place in the annals of ballet history.