(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 23rd January 2010)
Of about fifty cities spread across six countries I have visited or lived in, the one place in which I know one can get along just fine without knowing the language is Chennai. Well, there’s Bangalore, but there one usually can’t finish a sentence without using English, Hindi, Tamil AND Kannada. In Chennai, though, not only do you not miss out on things you want in on, you can’t avoid things you desperately want out of, using linguistic acumen.
It’s like the city finds ways to engulf you in its cross-cultural dialogue by whatever means it can find. As someone who would lead Misanthropic Pride Parades, if that were not quite so oxymoronic, I always do my level best to avoid conversation – and usually, the easiest way to do it is to pretend you’re an NRI who doesn’t speak any language except English. You could, at a stretch, resort to “Lo siento, pero no ingles”, but you’re likely to be asked what the difference between “te amo” and “te quiero” is.
And the reason you’re never allowed to feel comfortably out of place is that there is a brigade out there, a very unsecret society that specialises in Tamil-to-English literal translation.
Take the man we called Mr. Walk Inglis, a former colleague of mine. I was working with a radio station, and no one knew quite how to deal with an RJ who was on loan from our Mumbai office. She would complain that the song selection wasn’t comprehensive enough. Finally, Mr. Walk Inglis closed the case with, “see ma, this is the problem. You are not knowing how to dance, and you’re saying the stage is not proper.”
Then there are the sabha mama-mamis. They are about as frequent an occurrence across the Mylapore-T.Nagar stretch this time of the year as a poet in ancient Persia. They begin by observing your clothes, your jewellery and the twitch of your fingers, and then ask whether you learn music or dance. In the interest of avoiding an analysis of the performer’s prowess, you reply in the negative.
“Are you from Chennai?” they ask in disbelief.
“My parents are. I grew up all over the place,” you say apologetically, with a fake accent that’s apparently convincing enough.
“But it is soaked in the blood,” they say proudly, “see, you have come back to the same mud.”
Once, while watching the daughter of a famous Odissi dancer perform, a rasika leaned over to me and asked, “what do you think of her?”
When I nodded approval, he said, “that’s what! Will a tiger give birth to a cat? But that said, even a crow thinks its chick is a golden egg.”
And it’s not limited to the realm of delusional crows. Back in school, I remember one of my teachers saying, “please don’t be cashew nuts and exceed the word limit on your essays.”
Mr. Walk Inglis has been known to comment ironically, “you know, ma, I will stand up for what I believe in, in front of any boss. I will say four words like snatching out their tongue. But there is no one I am more scared of than my wife. If she asks me four words, I will go catch her pallu and follow her. It is true what they say. A tiger outside is a mouse in the house.”
It’s all very well to grin at this city’s ways from the outside and put it down with a smirk. But I knew I needed help when I caught myself calling my brother a filtered fool.