How I Learnt (some) Tamil

I was born and brought up in Jamshedpur, a cosmopolitan town thanks to the many industrial units there (TISCO, TELCO, et al). There were of course Biharis constituting a large part of the population along with immigrants from the neighbouring and not-so-neighbouring states. And then there were immigrants from the four southern states. Tamilians, Andhraites, Kannadigas and Malayalis, mostly from the former two.

As was the norm those days, the 60’s, anyone hailing from the south was called a Madrasi. That was the descriptor for people speaking an astonishingly odd language. The common understanding went that this language resembled the cacophony created by pebbles being tossed around in a closed tin can. As we progressed to higher classes we added some newly learnt Physics to it. We said these each of the four languages could be replicated by using different masss of the pebbles, the speeds of rotation and the volumetric capacity of the tin cans. But the tin can- pebble analogy remained!

Not that I did not have South Indian friends. There was this dear classmate, Sharma who despite his North Indian sounding name had Tamil as his mother tongue but claimed he hailed from Kerala . Some district called Palghat, he said. And the only South Indian resident in the neighbourhood had a classic Madrasi name, Murthy, and was indeed a Tamilian, which I discovered much later! Come to think of it, most of my close friends those days were Madrasis, sons of engineers working in the various factories and research laboratories in and around Jamshedpur.

Biharis would call the South Indians, “khatta pani”, obviously taking a cue from the generous amount of tamarind in their cuisine. And the South Indians would reciprocate, as and when this minority group could summon their courage, “Hindustani, daal ka paani, chutiya rakhkar badi phutani”. You have to be a Bihari to understand this, but let me try and explain. Biharis have daal (mostly toor daal) cooked with thin consistency, and many Biharis would keep a little pony tail (“chutiya”) adorning their close-cropped hair. “Phutani” is a typical Bihari word (across various Bihari dialects) which means ghamand, or pride! By the way, in case you did not know, Bihari is no language, it just denotes a statehood. Bihari dialects are several, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Magahi etc., etc.

My initiation into the intricacies of South India started when I joined my engineering college- Institute of Technology at BHU, Varanasi- where I was suddenly exposed to hordes of these exotic creatures living in close proximity. To start with the South Indians in the campus had a descriptor different from Madrasi, they were called Makkalu. I discovered soon enough where this came came from. Makkalu is an acronym for Madras, Andhra, Kerala, Karnataka, Andaman, Lashdweep Union. Makkalu was pronounced as Makaalu, with the second K silent, and they were addressed to as Makalu-wa, in the best manner of Bhojpuri-speak. (Lilke I was called Ojha-wa or Santosh-wa. Makkalus, I discovered were normal folks, people like you and me and would take part in all the activities which I was interested in. Like cutting classes, spending time at the street corner tea stalls, playing card games like 29 (sometimes called 28, depending on the scoring protocol agreed upon); generally all the stuff which teenagers indulge in when they are away from parental gaze. So they were normal folks, after all.

But there was one key difference. Food. Each of the 9 engineering college hostels in BHU had some 5-7 different student-run messes, some catering to as little as 20-30 members. The makkalus would gravitate towards messes serving food of their choice. So there was this generic makkalu mess, the Mallu (Kerala) mess and the Gulti (telugu) mess.


As chance would have it, my campus placement after my MBA was in a Chennai-based company.

My first lesson in Tamil language started from my very first trip to Chennai. When I got down at the Madras Central station, I was accosted by a auto-wallah who offered to take me to my hotel. Only if could just pay him some rupees over the meter. “Patta rua pod kudungo, saar!” After much gesticulations and usage of broken Hindi and English I could figure out that he wanted Rs 10 extra. A 30% premium on the normal Rs 35 fare. I agreed reluctantly. I discovered much later that the famous “patta rua” was the leitmotif of the auto-wallahs in Chennai. Anyway, the first few lessons learnt. Patta= ten, rua= rupees, and saar= sir. Kudungo was of course the epitome of politeness. He had respectfully said, “dijiye” and not the rather insulting “do”- “kudo” or worse still “kudraa”.

When in Chennai, I was part of the team launching a new brand of chocolates, Fonda being the brandname. Which brings me to the word I learnt on day one of my field visits. Venda. Many of the shopkeepers who I would request to stock-up on Fonda would respond, venda. Initially I wondered whether venda was the Tamil version of Fonda. But I quickly discovered the meaning, venda means “do not want”. These guys just did not want to stock-up on Fonda!

My selling stint taught me a lot many words. Counting, of course. This was critical to communicate the price of our products. And to take orders (aar pieces or pannenda pieces- 6 pieces or 12). The potti kadai -small retail shop- owners who I had to deal with during my initial sales stint selling chocolates and shoe polish would often fob off my entreaties to stock more of my products with narriya irke (I have enough). They would rarely say waango (please come) or even rarer was ukkarungo (please sit). Very often, while making a sales call, the counter-person would inform me no orders were possible that visit as “Modalali illey” (shop-owner not available). I kind of knew that it was the modalali himself who was posing as the counter person, but I could little but to mumble a nandri (“thanks”) and move on.

And while moving on, and trying to find directions one even learnt a few more words

Then there was this visit to “Murudi’s Lodge”, next to our office, for sappad or a meal. I discovered the joys of “mor”. Mor is butter-milk, the South Indian version of “chhachh”. I always thought that that mor was an apt name, one always wanted more and more of it; it was so tasty!  Also tasty was an appalam which I would invariably orders repeats of. Ur extra appalam kudungo. Please give me an extra papad. And of course the meal was wrapped up with a “beeda”, paan to North Indians.

Slightly out of context here, but I learnt new English words too while in Chennai. Like “cover” meant an envelope, “round tana” meant traffic island/ crossroad. And I also learnt to live with the curious Tamil way of writing non-Tamil words and names. Like dropping the alpahabet “h” from words and adding the alphabet to some others, to probably soften the hard “t” sound. My name, as you can guess by now, often gets spelt as “Santhosh Oja” in Tamil Nadu.


Forward to 15 years later:


I hear my elder son say to his friend, “What, Da?”

His friend replies, “Nothing, Da”. The circle is now complete.

Da is an equivalent of the Hindi “re” in Tamil.

My son has become a Madrasi now!



3 Responses to How I Learnt (some) Tamil

  1. Rajiv Sahai says:

    I too remember the various forms of ‘khattas’ at JSR. There was this MBVK Rao who was aptly described as ‘Alphabetical Rao or A to Z Rao. Then there were these ‘Addha Narials’ who were those southy priests with their scalps halve shaven and were usually found riding ‘Suvegas’. My exposure to their exotic language was limited to ‘Ille (no), Po (go away) and Ingewa (come in). Also, much to our delight was the various (often exaggerated) description of the way most khattas partook their daily fare of rice and dahi

  2. Balaji Narasimhan says:


    It was my first day in Bangalore.
    My sister was there at the station to receive me.

    Reaching home she stopped the car and asked me to buy some mil packets.
    I go to the shop and say : Milk Please…..

    She looked at me and said : Sridevi Beka ……. Nandini Beka
    Stumped !!!! Hit wicket ????

    Seconds later I discovered they were 2 varieties of Milk brands in Bangalore.

    BUT… Iearned my first word in Kannada.
    BEKA…….. BEDU……….BEDA ( You want?…… I want……I Dont

    Months later when questioned about my Kannada abilities..
    I had graduated enough to say….. Solpa ……Solpa ( little …little )

    One evening I heard what was a popular song in Kannada which went something like
    ” solpa………………abc……….Shilpa…………”

    AND THEN I constructed my first original sentence in Kannada

    BEKU. BEKU.BEKU!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. shrikant says:


    How come you missed Machha ! Was it not there then ?


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