Thursday, May 28, 2009

In God's Own Country: Becoming Illiterate

One of the most interesting part of the recent (or not so recent?) Kerala trip was the language barrier. Trust me, it is worse than just being illiterate. Being unable to read the script is one thing. But out there in the South, I was effectively deaf and dumb too. It was evident from day one when we landed at Kochi station (where I also learnt an interesting fact: Kochi, Cochin and Ernakulam are the same). I called our bus driver who had been waiting outside the station since morining. After an abortive attempt at getting him to understand Hindi, I switched to English which he seemed to understand better. At the end of the conversation I succeeded in routing him to the wrong platform altogether. Blame Dijkstra :P.

Having a person in the group who knew Malayalam was no less than a benediction there. Thank you Abhilash for being the ominipresent (if not physically then wirelessly present) translator. Rescue calls (..._ _ _ ... if you will) of "Abhilash ko bulaao, Abhilash ko bulaao!" could be heard every now and then. Poor fellow had to remain on the tip of his toes during all the bus journeys through those narrow, winding, single lane roads, nestled in extensive tea plantations; relaying messages to and from the driver's cabin.

My innocent yet sincere attempts at learning a few phrases of Tamil were frowned upon by Mr. Sheldon. I did manage to remember one phrase for a long time though - "Tamil pesuvelaa?" - which, I was told, roughly means "Will you speak Tamil?" After that, I was given the standard bloodcurdling stare every time I said "Tamil pesuvelaa" to any local. Sheldon was involved in a very interesting conversation with our rickshaw driver when we were heading to Trivandrum station on the last day of the trip. It was raining cats and dogs, reminding me of the heavy rains which lash Mumbai in July and wreak havoc on train tracks. I requested Sheldon to ask the rickshaw-wallah if tracks get flooded in Trivandrum too. Initially a little shy, as expected, he finally relented to my beseeching, only after a bit of threatening - "If you don't ask the rickshaw-wallah now, I'm going to say "tamil pesuvelaa" to him!" Here's a short transcript of the conversation they had:

Sheldon (S): Tamil pesuvelaa?
Rickshaw-wallah (RW): Aama.
S: Illa bela pela lilia?
RW: Seela leela.
S: Kaali Idli Dosa Chutney illa?
Me (in soliloquy; afraid of interrupting): I told him to ask about the train, why in the world are they talking about food?!
RW: Kalai ya ya. Malayi na na.
S (nodding respectfully with a trace of a smile): Nandri, nandri.

Turned out the train was running on time. And what Sheldon was asking about was why none of restaurants served idlis and dosas for lunch or dinner!

During the return journey I ventured to decode Malayalam script with the enthusiasm and shrewdness of a hacker or perhaps a codebreaker. I tried relating the "Wingdings" Dravidian symbols to the corresponding Devnagari names written on the boards which displayed names of the stations on the way. I did succeed in constructing a brief roster of Hindi consonanats and vowels, each preceded by the corresponding Malayalam ones. But the number of symbols became so overwhelming that my zeal instantly dampened.

Next day, when the train entered Goa and Maharashtra, I could finally appreciate that feeling of "coming-back-home" after reading some boards written in familiar "अ आ इ ई" and "ABCD." And then there was this realization which probably all of us had towards the end - There is still a lot to learn, so many things to know, so many places still to see, still a long way to go!

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