Hindi may officially be India’s national language, but Bengalis aren’t really known for their ability to speak it. If anything, we’re known for how skilfully we mangle Hindi. Even after spending 20-odd years living in Delhi and being surrounded by Punjabi neighbours, my grandmother would come up with fantastic sentences like, “Hum khata kinnay jaata hai”. (Apologies to non-Hindi speakers. There’s no way to translate that sentence. It verges on gibberish in the way it uses random bits of Hindi and Bengali.) So, just as my thoroughly Bengali father was determined I would know Bengali fluently, my partially non-Bengali mother — who speaks fluent and flawless Hindi — was equally determined that I shouldn’t make a fool of myself when speaking Hindi. Sadly, I must report that I have failed my mother.
Although I must say, I’m not sure whether growing up in the Hindi heartland would necessarily have helped me yesterday when I discovered I had lost these:
I was reasonably sure that I’d kept those earphones on my desk a couple of days ago but they were no longer there, which meant that it was most likely that my housekeeper/cook Sujata had kept them somewhere. Now, even in English, the phrase “Have you seen my rubber ducky earphones?” sounds, well, weird. In Hindi, it’s just flat-out idiotic. To begin with, ‘duck’ is not a word that gets thrown about much in the everyday life of Mumbai. Then there’s the problem of translating ‘earphones’ into Hindi. I’m not even getting into the added complications Mumbaikar Sujata encountering my nonsensical, grammatically-incorrect Hindi. To put it mildly, she was perplexed when I said, “Woh joh main kaan mein lagati hoon music suntey waqt, woh jinkay upar pilay batakh hain, woh aapne dekhey hain?” (Again, apologies to those who don’t understand Hindi. It sort of translates to, “Those things I put in my ear when I listen to music, those things with the yellow ducks on them, have you seen them?”)
She had a simple question, “Batakh matlab?” Batakh being the Hindi word for duck, as far as I can recall. Except Sujata has never heard of ‘batakh’. At which point I ended up saying, “Woh chiriya joh quack kartay hain.” (“Those birds that go quack.” Yes, I used quack in the middle of a Hindi sentence.) Unsurprisingly, Sujata couldn’t help me find the earphones. At this point, I’m just thankful she came back to work the next morning.
Speaking of mornings, today, at the rise-and-shine hour of 8am, my doorbell rang. I opened the door to see a eunuch standing outside. I’m not sure what the politically correct word for those belonging to the third sex is so I’m going to leave it at eunuch. In India and Pakistan, they are traditionally called hijra, but I’m not sure whether that’s considered derogatory; it’s certainly used derogatorily colloquially. I’m going to refer to this individual as ‘she’ since she was wearing a bright blue sari and lots of jewellery and make-up, her gruff baritone notwithstanding.
“Hi,” she said.
“Er, morning,” I replied, feeling vaguely sheepish about being in my jammies while being face to face with someone so neatly and shinily dressed up.
“Baby.” Big grin.
“Baby?” Big grin with a hint of a doubtful waver.
It’s an old practice in South Asia to give money to the “hijra” community when a child is born and ask the eunuchs to bless the child. Sometimes, eunuchs would come to a house even if they hadn’t been invited. After a couple of minutes, when the synapses finally started firing in my brain, I realised the eunuch was looking for my neighbour who had looked pronouncedly pregnant the last time I’d seen her. But since I didn’t know if she’d had the baby and whether or not she wanted a eunuch at her doorstop, I just told the person at my door that I did not have a baby.
“Oh, then it must be that house,” she said, pointing at my neighbour’s door. “I don’t live here, you see, so I didn’t know. Sorry,” she smiled sweetly. I smiled back and was going to shut the door when she said, “You shouldn’t delay it, you know. It’s about time you had a child. The later you have the child, the more problems there are.”
I shut the door.
For the next 30 minutes, said eunuch sat outside my neighbour’s door and beat a drum. From this, I gathered that my neighbour did not want the blessings of the third sex upon her offspring. After half an hour, the drum stopped. My doorbell rang again. I opened the door and there she was again, smiling widely.
“I’m going,” she told me.
“Remember what I told you. Don’t delay. Have a baby quickly.”
Welcome to the 30s, when random people, including visiting eunuchs, feel the need to have an opinion about your reproductive system. And share it with you.