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!