<%-- Page Title--%> Reflections <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 143 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

February 27, 2004

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>

Of Semantics

Tripping up in

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 prowess.

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.


(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is published by The Daily Star