Monday, January 21, 2008

Monkeying around?

The Bada Bandar (big monkey) controversy makes me smile. Don’t jump to conclusions. Oops! is that racial? I mean, if you suspect I’m hinting at the one that jumps, no, no, I never meant that – I really meant that please don’t walk like a human being to any conclusions. A thousand apologies. I’m against all racial slurs.

But 'Big monkey’? Think about cultural connotations and of the hundreds of times we have been referred to as bandars by our parents alone. In fact, I always thought bandar was a term of endearment. I wonder what Bhajji called out. Bada aaya Bandar kahin ka!? Imagine the Aussies scampering to translate it as – Big monkey? Aha! That’s Racist! Racist!

But what makes me smile is remembering Papa recount this incident from when he was a student in Amreeka. He was being driven around by a fellow American who was swearing profusely. He turned to Papa and asked for an Indian swear word. Mild as he was, Papa told him that he’d call a person ‘Salla’ which literally means brother-in-law. The next time someone cut him in, the American swore loud and clear, ‘That was my brother-in-law!’ Such a harmless word, Salla, but try calling someone that in the bazaar and literally ‘hands will be raised’. When I used it in one of my stories set in Delhi, a friend wondered if the term was foul enough to portray a Delhiite’s tongue! Salla is probably just a prefix up north.

God, is there joy in swearing! Papa would stealthily come up and whisper into our ears. We would call out ‘Mummyeee…' And Papa would say, ‘What did I say?’ ‘He called me lisa!’ Spoken backwards this was Salli –sister-in-law. We waited for Mummy’s decree that whoever said a ‘bad’ word had to clean their tongue with cow dung as was the practice in her Wardha ashram. But technically, Papa could not be punished. Though there was Yatiku too (I’ll let that pass without the translation), spoken backward these were just nonsense words. Many elders in the family were known for their sharp tongues and some of those ‘bad’ words that I can’t spell here are almost legendary.

As children we had to device ways. I hear of cousin Chuniya’s Harpil– a blend of harami and pillay! (literally translated – puppy of a bastard(?) – not quite the same thing :( ) nephew Chotu had ‘Green mango more’ for haraamzada (bastard). I hope the next generation upholds family tradition and creates more such colorful language…. hang on…they’re here to get me…something I said! Color! Noo….