Lost in Translation

“So, I heard you’re from Bombay?”

“Um…No, not exactly”

You see, when I was 10, my parents took the monumental decision of making the shift from Chennai, the city I was born in, to Mumbai, a city I had heard of mostly in movies. Leaving behind the Tamil-speaking, lungi-clad populace of Chennai, I felt lost. It had never occurred to me before that there was anything out of the ordinary about being from Punjab and growing up in the opposite end of the country. I ate vadais and pappadums at the neighbours’ house and wore pattu-pavadais on festivals. I went to a school where P.T. teachers ran around wearing crisp silk sarees and kicked the ball with the ease of one wearing football shorts. I was more coconut water than lassi; more Rajnikanth than Honey Singh.

As a child, my concerned Tamil friends had taught me how to stutter out some garbled Tamil when the situation demanded it; which I did with much enthusiasm and an abominable accent. For of course, even all the coconut chutney, idli vada, and tayyar-saddam had not washed away the distinct Punjabi cadence from my tongue, which I had gleaned from around the house. Whether I liked it or not, I stood out.

It was easy to spot me in class photographs. The shy, tiny white creature standing amidst a sea of her sunbaked, bronzed friends. They grinned away to glory while I stared into the camera unsurely, having been the only who hadn’t understood the customary Tamil joke that the photographer often cracked to coax our unruly class to smile together.

For some reason, I was always of particular interest to the teachers, who would pronounce my name with much panache and ill-concealed curiosity during the roll call on the first day of class.

“Jesmeen Kaoor”, they would enunciate, “where are you from, kanna?”  And then, perpetually nervous, I would misunderstand the question and reply obediently “Good morning ma’am.  I am from Bhagirathi Ammal Street, T.Nagar, ma’am”. She would chuckle, crinkling up her beautiful, kohl-lined eyes. “No, no dear…” she would start off and then try a different question. “ What do you speak at home kanna? Hindi bolta hai tum?” Ignoring the impeccable grammar, I would smile diffidently and rattle off a few basic sentences by way of introduction for the benefit of the class and to save her the trouble of asking me more questions.

During recess, I would be directed towards the “North-Indian group” by the teacher, and soon enough our little fortress of aloo parathas would be ambushed by the Southern army, a riotous lot as we found out. That was pretty much how we were assimilated into their territory. In the course of having our tiffins ravaged, we would be sized up, our cuisines ratified, and soon after ushered into the land of Tamil, sambhar, and a way of life that we would all soon grow to love.

In return, I would teach them whatever little I know about my own culture. Teaching them Bhangra was always a fun exercise. I had no idea how I knew it myself, but my pedagogy ran somewhat like this

Step 1- Clench your hands into fists, leaving out one finger

Step 2 – These are your dance instruments. Point them straight up into the air.

Step 3 – Move your shoulders up and down rhythmically

Step4 – Now smile like a maniac and shuffle your feet as you please, yelling out ‘Hadippa’ sporadically

Of course, this effervesce of emotions was met with mixed reactions. My friends’ mothers did their best to inculcate a love for Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam in me. I was entrusted to a reputed Bharatnatyam teacher and she tried her best to make my stances more poised, my smile less maniacal and more enchanting. After spending one evening too many in that painful half-squat that I never got used to, I gave up. I still regret it a little. There was so much of the culture that I could have picked up. After spending 10 years in Chennai, it is a bit embarrassing to tell people that the only thing I know how to say in Tamil is that I don’t know Tamil. The south is a rich cultural hub, and I wish I’d tapped into it more.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t very familiar with my own culture to begin with. Though my parents were fluent in Punjabi, somehow we never spoke much of it at home. My brother and I grew up speaking an unremarkable mix of Hindi and English. Even after shifting to Mumbai, we never did end up picking up Marathi. If anything we were slightly relieved that at least people here understood Hindi for though we had loved Chennai, the language barrier was something that we never quite overcame. Now that we could talk to the autowallas and subjwaalas and the curious neighbours in Hindi it never naturally occurred to us to try to learn Marathi at all. Humans do tend to be a little complacent when things get too easy.

Clearly my linguistic growth had been stunted so far to say the least; I couldn’t speak my mother tongue nor the regional languages of the 2 places where I’d lived for almost a decade each. The first time I felt rankled by this was in college-a microcosm of people from all over the country, each one of them seeking out their own kind through their vernaculars. And I, caught in the middle, not knowing where I belonged.

Over the next 2 years, I made a lot of South Indian friends, perhaps out of pure habit, for even in Mumbai, I somehow ended up having quite a few friends from down south. Once in college, in order to keep up with the rapid conversations in Kannada that my closest friends spoke in, I started picking up a phrase here, a word there… and soon enough I could decipher entire sentences simply by the intonation, the context and the knowledge of a few familiar words. While I self-educated myself in this way in Kannada, I also took a course in Spanish. Today I remember precious little of the language itself, but I do remember very clearly how badly I wanted to visit Spain after a couple of classes. For languages are windows into cultures. And though I may not be a fluent speaker of Spanish, the process of learning it made me fall in love with all things Spanish ( songs, siestas, men, food, men , festivals, men…did I mention men ? ).

The next time I went home, I paid a little more attention to my grandmother’s rants in Punjabi , and picked up a spattering of words. Though I still sound like an NRI with a bad accent when I try to speak in Punjabi , I felt closer to my culture than I had in years, even joining a dance troupe called Bhangra Militants to celebrate my new-found sense of identity.

Radical dance troupes aside, what I learnt is that languages are not just mediums of communication; they are entire histories of cultures compressed into a couple of phonetic sequences. They reveal more than a book on “Everything you wanted to know about Germany/ France/ Spain/ random exotic European country” ever can.

As for my latest language fad? Assamese. 🙂

– Jasmine Kaur


  1. Outstanding post however I was wanting to know if you could write a litte
    more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further.
    Bless you!

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