When I was visiting Madurai a few months back, I knew there would be language problems. You can travel all over North India, talk Hindi and survive. Even in remote parts of Rajasthan where a few old men speak only Marwari, there is no dearth of Hindi speaking population. Pahadis in Himachal and Garhwal switch between Hindi and local tongue effortlessly. But things are much different once you drift southwards.
The deeper you head into any of the southern states, less easier it is to find people who speak a language known to wider audience. It better be Kannada, Telugu, Tamil or Malayalam in their respective territories. So Tamil it had to be when I was in Madurai – a language I did not speak.
I caught a rickshaw from the bus-stand to take me to Meenakshi Temple. That part of the communication was easy. “Meenakshi Temple,” I told him, and he responded with a short “fifty,” using the English word.
Further on, I would have been happy to sit silently in the backseat, waiting to be dropped at the temple. But the rickshaw driver had other ideas. He smelled more business, and had to act. He made a short talk as he drove towards the temple, most of which I did not understand. But what I could do was pickup words from his generous mix of English and give it a meaning. Besides, being neighbours, a Tamil fellow can grasp bits of Kannada and vice versa. And so began the conversation I did not wish to be a part of.
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Naturally it wasn’t hard to see what he was trying to say. But my challenge was to respond to him in a way he could understand. Realizing that my best bet was to use Kannada than any other language, I got down to speaking as though I am in Bangalore, or giving him short one-word answers.
I tried to cut the conversation and keep it as brief as possible, but he would not give up.
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The conversation went on this way till we made it to the temple. He kept opening up every few minutes and had something or the other to say. And I had to stay alert to catch a few familiar words to help me interpret him. Even after we made it to the temple and I paid his bill, his last words were still the same – “tamil tamil tamil tamil rooms tamil tamil.”
Things was much easier when I was on the way out from Madurai and looking for a bus to Kanyakumari. The rickshaw guy I hired to reach the bus-stand was silent, but a travel agent caught me once I was there. To my delight, this man spoke Kannada to a decent degree, but it was to become a cause of my problem later. He insisted that I buy a ticket from him for a bus that was bound to depart an hour later. But I was least interested in it till I saw the bus – I did not want to look like a fool with a ticket in hand for 10am bus if buses kept departing at 9.30, 9.45,.. Or even worse, last thing I wanted is to make the 6-hour journey in a dilapidated rickety.
So I asked him to wait till the bus comes. It was 9am, and the bus was scheduled to leave at ten. But he wanted to finish my business in a hurry, so he get away in search of others.
“Bus has come,” he told me in excellent Kannada, “come to our office, I will give you the ticket.”
“Show me the bus,” I demanded.
“Bus has come baba,” he replied pretending a resigned look, “you take the ticket now.”
I never understand why he was hesitant to show me the bus, and that made me a little suspicious. I poked him further and insisted on seeing the bus – “no ticket till you show me the bus.”
“Bus has come,” he again said in a desperate push, “you see, the bus has come at 9.45”.
I then realized where the problem was – it was his Kannada. Talking to me at 9am, he was confusing the tenses, saying that the bus has arrived at 9.45am. I laughed, and eased his tension by finally buying the ticket from him a little later.