August 15th, 2018

Languages made more fun.12

Learning a new language is always exciting. What make this exercise amusing are the faux pass which are inevitably part and parcel of any such exercise. I am reminded of this one incident many years ago, when my Arabic vocabulary did not exceed seven words, even including Yalla, Shoofi, and Marhaba – which discerning readers will know are the three words every expatriate, whether or not worth his visa, knows.

Rewind to 2000: I had just got my driving license, which I had interpreted as “License to drive like crazy”, and was busy leaving a trail of clenched fists and choice words in my wake. One not so fine morning, I was running late for office, and as was the UAE driving code (unofficial) rather than offense those days, I decided to swerve out of a painfully slow moving lane and back in closer to the underpass we were all crawling towards – after all I was running late, and the other people seemed to be well in time for wherever they were headed so patiently. Unbeknown to me though, there was a gentleman of the law enforcement department stationed at the said entrance to ward off exactly the kind of butting in I had planned. He was visibly amused by what must have appeared to be my total disregard for the presence of a man in uniform when breaking a ‘lesser known’ law, and decided to express his appreciation directly. He was more than amused, when I tried to pretend that I had not seen his invitation to pull over and accept a compliment form him. The diligent officer of the law that he was, he decided to step right in front of me to draw my attention to him. Not left with an option, I pulled over.

We were still going through the formalities of wishing each other a splendid day ahead, when something I said seemed to stir something deep inside the officer, and his expression changed just as I stammered, “Kuntu… kuntu…muta-akhir” which in Fusha should have meant “I was… I was… late…”. He cut me short with a curt (and mocking) “Shoo Kuntu, kuntu…” and issued me a ticket! My conversational Arabic has come quite a few furlongs since, but for the life of me I have not been able to figure out what it was that changed obvious adulation to express reprimand.

There have been instances though that have helped me understand just how that might have happened. As much fun as languages might be, the perils of communicating serious matters in a language not entirely within one’s grasp can hardly be over-stated. Take, for instance, the incident when HPN and I were half-way through a disagreement – and were already past the poking, interrupting, not-listening, and starting-every-sentence-with-a-firm-negative stages (all acts initiated, and carried out most professionally by yours truly) which mark the futility of any further discourse on a given matter, and underline the importance of discarding the discussion altogether lest it might become a scar on a valued friendship, when HPN in his trademark “Stephen Covey” inspired communication technique answered one of my more potent objections thus: “Merey bhai, main samajh raha hun tum kahan se aa rahe ho!”

It stunned me into silence. Then I almost died laughing.

I am afraid the hilarity of this incident cannot be translated, but here is what happened: HPN translated the rather over-rated English phrase ‘I understand where you are coming from’ literally in Urdu, and since there is no such expression in Urdu, my immediate response was to think where I was coming from physically while my sub-conscious initiated the signal telling me something somewhere was fishy. It took me a moment to figure out what had happened, and then of course the discussion was altogether forgotten.

HPN has a penchant for language gaffs; there was this other time, when Jalali Baba and HPN had found themselves in an Egyptian restaurant, and when the waitress arrived to take the order, HPN, who unlike Jalali Baba was brought up in the Middle East, and was hence expected to take charge of the situation when two desis ended up in an Arab restaurant, cleared his throat and proceeded very confidently to place his order in English after addressing the waitress in Arabic. Even today, four years after the incident, Jalali Baba recounts the horror of that day not without a hint of shudder. HPN had addressed the waitress as “Ya Akhi!”, (O Brother!). JB says the expression on the waitress’ face almost made her into an ‘akhi’ for a few seconds, until she realized what she was up against, and decided to let it pass.

The two HPN incidents cannot, however, be used to illustrate the point I am trying to make. The inherent flaw with these examples is that they involve HPN whose communication skills might be exemplary in the confines of an office, but are stuff of legend for all the wrong reasons amongst us friends.

This is why I must end this post with an incident that transpired in our multi-ethnic office. Quite a few of my colleagues in my previous office were from India, and about half of them hailed from the southern part of the country, where Urdu and Hindi are scarcely, if at all, understood. We spoke a mixture of watered down English-Urdu-Hindi combo in the office, unless of course the conversation took place between one from the north of India and yours truly, when we could shift into comfortable desi talk sans English. One day as a couple of northern desis sipped their coffee over a discussion about a genocide situation in Iraq or some such hot spot, one of our dear south Indian colleagues ‘G’ who had been listening in too, interrupted the discussion wanting to know what had cutting of mangoes got to do with loss of human life in a volatile part of the world. Blank expressions and a lot of blinking ensued. ‘G” sensed something was amiss, and proceeded to repeat his question, to which he got what should have been a satisfying answer – The cutting of mangoes had nothing to do with anything that was being discussed, and what did he mean by bringing up mangoes in the middle of a serious discussion.

“Did you not just mention cutting of mangoes?”, he charged.

“Absolutely not!”, came the reply.

“Then what was that qatl-e-aam about?”, he seemed to have nailed the audience. Because the audience did go silent.

Qatl-e-aam is an Urdu word for Genocide/Mass Murder, ‘Qatl’ meaning murder, “Aam” meaning ‘General’. Aam is also the word for mango, and our friend did a splendid job of putting two an two together.

Poor guy – genocide and mango festival have since become interchangeable terms in the office when he is around.

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