The amusing perils of cross-language


It’s rib-tickling funny how similar or sometimes the same words mean so comically different in other languages. When you try to use your expertise literary skills of one language in another, the post-embarrassing narrations become epic tales.

When my parents moved to Calcutta, they came across a common north Indian nickname, the usage of which they wondered for a long time. My mom kept wondering for a few days, may be months, embarrassed to ask anyone why people called their sweet little daughter ‘guddi, when she had perfect beautiful eyes and by all means conveyed that she could see.  ‘Guddi’ which means blind in telugu made a sweet nickname in the north and she went bonkers over the thought, ‘why would that lady call her daughter blind?’

While this was her silent wonderment for quite some time, she encountered an incident where she had no clue what she was conveying. The symbolic decoration of married women being different in different cultures, started this conversation. In Bengal people wear red and white bangles, and visibly big sindoor. South Indians wear mangalsutra and toe rings. The lovely neighbour asked my mom, “beeye hoe gaeche?” (Are you married?). My innocent mom who did not understand bengali, could figure out only the word ‘beeye’ in the entire sentence (not its meaning though), and took it as B.A. Sounds similar. Not her fault. Not having completed her graduation in Bachelor of Arts, she said ‘no, not complete’. The lady looked very shocked, confused and her expressions changed. Suspiciously she pointed at me (a toddler) and gestured who is she? With a big smile on her face my mom proudly said, “She’s my daughter”. The lady was taken aback, her eyes widened, mouth opened wide, and just for confirmation she asked once again to which my mom’s answer was an affirmative no. The lady gave her odd looks, judged a lot, gave an inconvenient smile and left. And my mom kept thinking, ‘why is being a graduate so important in this part of the country? May be Bengalis are very particular about education and they don’t marry without completing graduation.’ She got a bit ambitious too, ‘May be I should get done with the last year of my course’.  A few days passed and she went to a friend’s house (Bengali) and casually asked ,’What is the meaning of B.A. (beeye) in Bengali?’ Her friend told her it means marriage. And there you go. Her embarrassment knew no bounds.

Another classic encounter was of my brother, who went around looking for his lost phone which he had dropped near some shop. Very fluent in Marathi, he vaguely remember a tamil word which sounds similar to ‘sapadla ka’(Did you find?). So he set on a voyage asking people in the shops and streets ,’phono sapadiya? White phone sapadiya?’.  Everyone gave him funny looks and pointed him to a hotel nearby. So he thought may be that’s the lost and found place, the owner must be a nice person and kept a track of lost things in the area. Hopefully he went and asked the same question, ’Anna, white phone sapadiya?’ He started laughing and pointed him inside the hotel. He went inside and asked the waiter the same things, and he exchanged strange looks with the counter guy. My confused brother came back disappointed and told us that everyone was pointing him towards the hotel and the hotel guys don’t  tell him anything, they keep pointing to the table. So just to confirm he asked, ‘sapdiya means did you find. Right?’ My husband gave a resounding ‘NO’ and started cracking up and everyone was laughing instantly. And poor brother, he had no clue that he went about asking people if they ate a white phone! (Sapadiya means ‘did you eat?’ in tamil)

And it’s not the east-west or north-south divide. Words in south too mean contrastingly different and will get you those ‘what’s wrong with you’ looks. My dad’s friend during his stint in the beautiful city of Madurai, came across a transformer which was spitting out sparks and smokes. He ran in all directions and started shouting ‘pramadham, pramadham. Aiyyo pramadham’. And everyone around started moving away from him, giving him those weird looks and gave him the typical palm up pointing towards him gesture. He failed to understand why people looked at him like he was mad when he was trying to tell everyone that there is danger lurking around. Poor him, little did he know that ‘pramadham’ in tamil means superb, wonderful, and merry. And when he did come to know, it was a little too late, he was already the mad man of the area.

I too was tagged the crazy girl who laughs on the street (alone and out of the blue). I was going for my class – 2pm, sleepy afternoon, very few people on the street.  I was almost reaching the class and there was this girl walking towards me, talking on phone and looked jolly. At a distance from where I could hear her she was saying (still on phone), ‘chumma da, chumma chumma’. And me being me, I burst into cracks on her face, pressed my hand against my mouth, laughing uncontrollably, trying to get my phone out to pretend that I was talking on phone and convince at least the new spectators that I wasn’t mad.  Guess it was too little and too late. A lot of people saw me, my teacher included, plus it was hard not to laugh during the class with that girl on phone flashing in my head. For those who are still wondering, chumma means ‘simply’ in tamil and ‘kiss’ in hindi. And ‘da’ is just a colloquial ‘dude’. I hope she never goes to Delhi!

So the next time you try to do some language parallels, take care. You don’t want to be the accidental crack-pot or have guys running behind you.



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