A Confusion of Languages

A few years ago I was associated with a group of women living in an underprivileged area here in Mumbai. They had migrated with their families from Tamil Nadu to Mumbai. Most of them lived in the same area.

Not far from this area, there lived some Maharashtrian families. The Maharashtrian women could not speak Tamil. and my Tamil friends knew no Marathi. The men from these two areas , knowing Hindi and some English, could speak to each other and many of them became friends. Likewise with the children. But the women, not having much knowledge of either Hindi or English, could only nod and smile at each other.

The Tamil ladies used to gather together once a month to perform “Deep ( a tall traditional oil lamp)- Puja“. They decided that they would invite their Maharashtrian neighbours to perform the Puja with them that month. So they would be able to spend time together and there would be no need to talk!

The invitation was sent via their husbands and the Maharashtrian ladies accepted it. The day of the Puja was decided and my friends phoned to invite me, too.

“You will translate the Puja instructions into Marathi for us, won’t you?” they asked.

I did not understand Tamil, and talked with them in an interesting mixture of languages with the help of the children, so I did not see how I could.

The Puja book was in not in Tamil, but in Sanskrit- I could translate from Sanskrit couldn’t I? – they asked.

Since I had studied Sanskrit for a couple of years in college as well as in school, I thought I probably could, and agreed.

On the day of the Puja, I reached the Puja venue where preparations were in full swing. There was a large basket of bananas. Another was filled with flowers. The young girls had made a paste out of Rangoli powder and water and were drawing lines to show the ladies where to sit.

When all the ladies were seated in front of their lamps and ready to start the Puja, one of my friends thrust a small book into my hands and gestured me to start reading.

I looked at the first page. The instructions were in Tamil. I told her so. No, they are in Sanskrit, she said. No they’re not-I replied.

This dialogue was repeated a few times before I realized what the problem was- the book was in Sanskrit, but written in the Tamil script.

I finally made her understand that I could not read it. No problem, she told me, she would read it aloud and then I would be able to translate from Sanskrit into Marathi.

She started reading. Another problem arose. She was reading Sanskrit-but with a Tamil accent, and so it might have been a foreign language for all I could understand.

The resourceful ladies solved this problem also.

We sat four in a row- the first lady reading from the book. The second translating from Sanskrit into Tamil. (She did not speak Hindi). The third translating from Tamil into Hindi (She did not understand Sanskrit, but could speak Hindi). And finally me- translating from Hindi into Marathi!

The Puja was performed amidst much laughter. The ice was truly broken between the two groups of ladies, and they started getting together every now and then, on festive occasions.

After that my friends never really believed that I could read Sanskrit, though!

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16 thoughts on “A Confusion of Languages”

  1. What a great story ! Wish the so called leaders of some states would learn from these ladies, instead of insisting on nameplates in specific scripts, objecting to certain languages being taught in schools, and indulging in violence….Maybe women are just more resourceful ?

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  2. It is a very intersting post and lot can be learnt fromthese innocent girls.

    But,But..there are some political decisions which can hurt years after those were taken.

    Remember,the states were divided on liguistic basis…see the result.

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  3. Ugich Konitari- “Maybe women are just more resourceful ?”I would like to think so! 🙂

    BK Chowla – Yes , we do see the results of that decision.

    But these issues concerning language would probably lose importance with time- if political leaders did not keep raking them up!

    Kislay- We find that if we truly want to connect with someone, differences of language do not matter.

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  4. That was very interesting! I would have to agree with you that language is certainly no barrier – if we really want to communicate! It is unwillingness to communicate, that is the problem most of the time..

    @BK Chowla – I do not think dividing the country on liguistic lines has anything to do with this. All the languages were there even before the division – so these kinds of difficulties would have been there regardless..

    Manju – I totally agree with you – ‘But these issues concerning language would probably lose importance with time- if political leaders did not keep raking them up!’

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  5. Was this a puja or some kind of a chain game !?! All the same, as long as the bonds were established, nothing else is required !

    And ofcourse, i read somewhere..’that faults are the thinnest were love is the thickest’

    I wish our country had more people like you and displayed equal resourcefulness in solving our problems…

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  6. Great post to read Manju!!!Your life experiences touch the heart. You are lucky that you have seen so much at such close quarters and experienced genuine human warmth.

    What clearly stands out is – human beings basically are good and are connected. However, this goodness and connection has layers of garbage accumuated over and what we see are the demons that we seem to have become.

    Deep down we are all divine and you seem to touch the right chords. Very nice….

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  7. I second Mavin’s sentiments totally. Unfortunately we have politicians who thrive on differences rather than a connect between such as this.

    Up to a point, they too can’t be blamed. After all it is a fight to get more votes for much more money(in many cases) and power. But somehow, they have corroded badly what could have harmoniously developed into an India, a glimpse of which you have shown in this post.

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  8. Smitha- Yes, unwillingness to communicate- that is the real problem.

    Kavi- ‘faults are the thinnest were love is the thickest’
    You always think of the perfect quote!!

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  9. Mavin- “What clearly stands out is – human beings basically are good and are connected. However, this goodness and connection has layers of garbage accumuated over and what we see are the demons that we seem to have become.”

    So true! Perfect description of the situation today!

    Vinodji- We have to hope that creating a united, harmonious India is still possible…

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  10. I so totally agree with you. I dont have a single friend who speaks my mother tongue. And even when there is no common medium of communication..conversations have taken place..albeit with some speed bumps.

    Love sees no barrier.

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  11. Manju, This is how most of India works. It makes me wonder every time about our diversity. It is amazing.

    Reminded me of a funny incident that happened long back. My mom’s friend a Bengali auntie spoke Hindi with a heavy Bengali accent. In Kanpur, she had met some civilians who could speak only Hindi at a temple so she called them up and asked them to come for ‘BhOjan’ at 6 in Hindi.

    Those people thought that auntie had invited them for dinner so came at 8. ‘BhAjan was over by then and everyone had a hearty laugh.

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  12. Chrysalis- People can always communicate- if they really wish to do so! As you say- “Love sees no barrier.”

    Solilo- Nice story- Even when we know what the words mean, differences in pronounciation can sometimes cause such funny situations!

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  13. what a beautiful example of India’s diversity!:))

    made me smile this one Manju!:)) and I am smiling still:)

    like Ugich said I wish our politicians would learn something form this..people if and when left on their own get along just fine..its politics that is the poison..

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  14. I loved this story from your life, and the way the women worked together to solve the problem and that it drew them closer together…that it created a bond of joy and laughter!

    Speaking several languages myself, I totally understand what you are saying though with the complexities you ran into…and in turn, about friends not really believing you know Sanskrit now because of the hiccup…I believe you do know it though! LOL 🙂

    Wishing you a delightful day, from West Point, Utah, U.S.A.

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  15. This story is very very interesting, Manju. "We sat four in a row- the first lady reading from the book. The second translating from Sanskrit into Tamil. (She did not speak Hindi). The third translating from Tamil into Hindi (She did not understand Sanskrit, but could speak Hindi). And finally me- translating from Hindi into Marathi!The Puja was performed amidst much laughter. The ice was truly broken between the two groups of ladies, and they started getting together every now and then, on festive occasions."

    This incident shows that everyone wants to be friends with each other, here, with all the diversities – so many languages, caste, religion…hmm."these issues concerning language would probably lose importance with time- if political leaders did not keep raking them up!"

    You too were game for this, nice. So much effort has been taken, just for friendship sake.

    Thank god, I read this post at least now. Very interesting, Manju.

    Like

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