Hasan Shaheed A Rahim
I still remember those childhood days when I
used to be reprimanded at home for imitating the accents of
the tall, fair-looking Pathans from the Sarhad of Pakistan,
who sold their wonder potions in our city streets in their overflowing
shalwar and kurta.
I must have embarrassed my parents one afternoon
when they heard me selling salajut, purportedly an
aphrodisiac, to my playmates, of course not knowing at that
early age what it really meant.
Our male domestic help was given strict orders
to bring us back home straight away from the playground and
not to let us listen to these street canvassers. I, my playmates
and those who chaperoned us, heard these quacks with rapt attention
on our way to and from the football practice ground, now the
outer stadium, almost everyday.
These pseudo-apothecaries' favourite haunts
were in front of the T&T building near now demolished Gulistan
Cinema or in the vicinity of Jinnah Avenue, now the Bangabandhu
Avenue and, of course, in the Sadarghat area where even the
most cautions commuters could be duped into buying their concoctions.
In my craze for languages I even tried to converse
with those groups of Pashtoons, who sold bed-sheets from Landikotal
at our doorsteps, in their tongue -- an admixture of Urdu and
Pashto with a strong guttural Urdu dominating.
I flattered myself for having successfully mastered
a foreign tongue. Little did I know that their appreciation
was more of a sales gimmick than any affirmation of my language
Being born and brought up in the old part of
the city I am no stranger to Urdu. My pronunciation of Urdu
is distinctly different from the local brand of it, being influenced
by the Urdu pronunciation of my father, who went to Aligar at
an early age and had his schooling there in India.
So, I thought I could just pass for a native
speaker of Urdu. But an incident some forty years ago at the
Bombay Sweetmeat shop, opposite yet another old city landmark,
the Calcutta Steam Laundry in Nawabpur Road (both no longer
exist on the spots), severely bruised my ego and dented my pride.
I was asked to return the 2 lbs (unit of measurement
of weight in use then) or so of 'chanachur,' which I had purchased
from the shop an hour before because my mother found the stuff
had become soggy.
After being squarely censured at home for my
usual carelessness, I went back to the shop and asked the shop
attendant, in what I believed to be chaste Urdu, to return the
same. The middle-aged man pretended not to understand me at
all, no matter how much I tried to explain to him that the stuff
was no longer crispy.
I battered my brain to find the appropriate
Urdu word for soggy and in the process came up with words like
'puth puta ho gia', 'churmuria nahien,' 'putya gia' and a stream
of other gibberish in the hope of making him understand what
was wrong with the stuff. At that moment a smart, elegant looking
gentleman stepped into the shop, stood in silence, overheard
my desperate attempts to make sense of it all and told the shopkeeper
in immaculate Bangla that he wanted to buy some particular sweetmeat.
Perhaps being moved by my plight the gentleman
told the shop-attendant in flawless Urdu that I wanted to return
the 'chanachur' as it had become 'chita.'
Isn't that the exact Urdu word for soggy? He
was a godsend for me. He was our matinee idol Azim.
Guess what I did when I was requested by a non-Bangalee
aunt of our neighbourhood, several years later, to buy a shishe
ka jug for her from the New Market I went round and round the
market window shopping for hours together on a wild goose chase
for a water jug made of lead.