“And is?” and Other Joys of Translations

September 25, 2009

A perennial joke has been around peculiar translations in Hindi of English words. For example shwet-vasanaa dhoomra paan shalaka ( श्वेत-वसना धूम्रपान शलाका). Before your head reels with this assault, let me explain: श्वेत= white, वसना= clothed; श्वेत वसना= white clothed, धूम्र= smoke, पान= consumption; धूम्रपान= smoking. Get the picture? Ok, the last one, शलाका: stick. So there you have: a white-clothed smoking stick. A cigarette, of course! What a nice romantic name for the coffin nail! The cigarette’s poorer- but more popular- cousin the humble beedi (बीड़ी) has an equally esoteric name: just the shwet is replaced by peet (पीत)- peet-vasanaa dhoomrapaan shalaka (पीत-वसना धूम्रपान शलाका). Peet (पीत) meaning yellow and alludes to the yellowish-brown leaf wrapping of a beedi. I suppose the more stately cheroot could be called shyam vasanaa श्याम-वसना …… (By the way, this vasanaa वसना not to be confused with a somewhat similar looking word, vaasana वासना!)

Or consider this utterly romantic and dreamy लौह पथ गामिनी. Can you imagine a young nubile thing (गामिनी is delectably close to कामिनी!) treading the treacherous ferrous path (to meet her lover, you wonder!). By the way that is the so-called Hindi-speak for a train.

Often this translation mania would go to ridiculous lengths specially for more mundane and common words. I suspect often to denigrate a language and its seeming inadequacies. Like for lawn tennis: हरी घास पर ले दनादन दे दनादन.”

A great translation could elevate a seemingly modest craft to the practice of art. From a mundane “hair cutting saloon” where you would expect to be assaulted by bored and smelly barber to a “केश कर्तनालय” where you would expect to bow to the ministrations of a hair sculptor. See the difference? Both mean the same. केश= hair, कर्तन= cutting, आलय= house. A hair cutting house.

The most unwittingly hilarious translators are those who work for English film distributors in the North. In many of the interior markets of the hinterland, English movies are seen by the audience for either the action sequences or the titillation they would promise. People would not bother about understanding the dialogues. However, they needed to at least know the name of the movie. And if this could stoke their expectations even more, that was more money at the box-office. So the translators would get on the job of finding colourful names.

The classic World War II movie, “The Dirty Dozen” got rechristened “दर्ज़न लफंगे”. A pretty neat name for a movie about a dozen criminals convicted to either life imprisonment or death being sent on a suicidal mission to Germany. Or take this C-grade 1970’s film about a female undercover Federal drug agent out to bust a gang of narcotics smugglers. This film, “Scorchy”, which was shown as “कातिल हसीना”.  Promises of violence and sex neatly encapsulated in this brilliant translation. As was the case with the name of the Jet Li’s movie “Kiss of the Dragon”.  “मौत का चुम्मा”. Action and tiltillation both assured!

In case you missed the point, there is a slogan on virtually every piece of communication on any such movie, with a call to immediate action: मार-धाड़ सेक्स से भरपूर, आज ही देखें!

One great source of entertainment for language aficionados is the sub-title of movies. Like this one which I saw a few years ago on TV. The movie name I do no remember- and that’s not important, but the translations were too funny. Take this for example: “Please get your ass outta here”. Screams the woman to her man. The quick and helpful translation: “कृपया यहाँ से अपने कूल्हे हटाओ”. “कूल्हा” being the Hindi for hips!

Sub-titles bring me to the Hindi to English translations of film dialogues, more interesting is the treatment of lyrics. The other day I was watching “Sahab Bibi aur Gulam”. While the overall sub-titling was good, there were some, though technically correct translations, which did not quite evoke the feeling of the original. Sample this: “The bee is very naive” (भंवरा बड़ा नादान है). While naive does mean नादान, perhaps innocent could be a better choice. Or this one: “Heard that yours is a whole night party today”. (सुना है तेरी महफिल में रतजगा है). रतजगा has a different feel to it compared with “whole night party”.

Indians mostly think in their mother tongue and what they speak in English is often a literal translation of the way they construct a thought into words in their minds. Often the result is hilarious. Like this reverential reference to the boss from an awe-struck subordinate: “They are very brilliant”. “They” emanates from the literal translation of the respectful वे of Hindi.

And to end this piece, a classic Hindi-thought-English-spoken-words incident.

This story is about a (not-so- young) upcoming student neta in my BHU days. My engineering college (IT-BHU) within the campus had a significant number of voters and all the Students’ Union office bearer aspirants would work hard to win this “vote bank”. But the hitch for most of them was that while they were essentially Hindi speaking, IT-BHU attracted students from all over India and many were not conversant with Hindi.

This neta, while on a campaign round at the IT-BHU hostels would try to speak to all only in English, at least his version of English. Once, in order to to get chummy with a student who was having a puff in the hostel corridor, this neta sidled up to him and here is how the conversation went:

Netaji (नेताजी): “Suniye (सुनिए)! Listen!!

Student: “Jee, netaji?” (जी नेताजी?)

Netaji (नेताजी): And is?

Student  (flummoxed for a bit, soon gathers his wits): Is, is!

I will not translate this conversation but on literal translation you would have got a gist of this chat, the neta was trying to cadge a cigarette off this unsuspecting student, asking if he had a cigarette to spare!

How I Learnt (some) Hindi

October 13, 2008

This story is on my Hindi learning, the initial stages I went through.

My father was a Hindi professor, so it was not a major surprise to anyone that all of us were proficient in Hindi. We spoke Hindi at home, we wrote letters to various relatives in Hindi (right from Pujyawar Baba to Saadar Charan Sparsh), we took part in Hindi elocution contests and generally were considered the Hindi gurus in our respective classes.

Hindi education for all of us began with a particular text book. No sooner we were some 3 years old, Pitaji woulod buy a text book called Manohar Pothi. A slim booklet printed in black and white. I discovered much later that it was written by a very respected litterateur Shivpujan Sahay.

There was something unique about this book: it did not teach Hindi the conventional way starting from the basic alphabet, but jumped straight into words and even sentences. Like “Ma” “Mala” “la”, eventually brought together in a neat little sentence, “Ma mala la”. Of course there were the usual line drawings of a lady (=ma) and a mala. That was, I suppose, more to drive home the point rather than illustrate the book for a child’s amusement.

I have always thought that this made me one-up on other kids who studied Hindi the conventional way, “Ka se kabutar”, “Kha se khargosh” (sometimes “kha se kharaha” as well), “ga se gadha”… etc. Some of the more interesting ones I remember are “Tha se Thathera” preceding “da se damru” and “Sha se Shatkon”. Thathera, means a domestic utensil repairman, was illustrated by an oldish, dhoti-clad gentleman bending over a bunch of utensils probably straightening out the contours of a lota or a thali. Shatkon means a hexagon, mind you this word was spelt with the alphabet for Sha which resembles a “pa”, and not the sha with which you spell “shaaam”. And if you are interested in more of the “complicated words, Ksha was for kshatriya, tra was for trikon!

Not the real Manohar Pothi, but a wannabe!
Not the real Manohar Pothi, but a wannabe!

Damru, Thathera, et al
Damru, Thathera, et al

The world of talavya, dantya and moordhanyasa’s” was very complicated (even my name has two of these!!) and we were better off with “Manohar Pothi”!

And the Hindi learning was not limited to the alphabet; it went on to numerical skills as well. First, the counting. Ek, do,teen. That was easy. But in the best traditions of Bihari scholars it was important for me to be proficient in multiplication tables as well. Tables of 2, 3 etc were “mastered” initially and then followed the tables of the double digit numbers. These were taught with creativity to get the attention of kids. Very poetic, if a multiplication table can be. Sample this. Table for 15. Dooni tees (15X2=30), tee paintalees, chaukey saath (15X4=60).., which went on to atthey beesa (15X8= 120), nau painteesa (15X9=135).

Do dooni Chaar.... Nau chaukey chhattis...
Do dooni Chaar…. Nau chaukey chhattis…

There were some nerds in our community who always wanted to show off their skills with tables for fractions… sawaiya (tables for 1 ¼), adhaiya (tables for 2 ½). But I managed to stubbornly avoid these!

Over time I learnt how to read and write Hindi and it was time to graduate to kids’ magazines.

Those days there were four key publications, Parag, Nandan, Chandamama and Bal Bharati. We subscribed to the first two, the other two were read infrequently. Between Parag and Nandan, Parag had more contemporary contents while Nandan dealt with kings and queens. Parag by far was my favorite and I still remember two great story-tellers who were regulars at Parag, Avatar Singh whose stories of Dadaji and Nanaji and their respective groups of grand-children and their friends were always very hilarious. And then there was Vidwan K. Narayanan, a Chennai-based writer who used to write most poignant stories. Nandan had Raja-rani stories but somehow they were much better as compared with Chandamama’s fare. By a strange quirk, the editor of Parag was the renowned Hindi writer Kanhaiyalal “Nandan”!

What fights we kids would have in the house when the latest copies of Parag and Nandan would arrive!

Anyway, as the years transpired I moved on to more serious stuff; Premchand, Devaki Nandan Khatri, Gulshan Nanda. And then some more. But I suppose I shall write about this phase in a later post.

How I Learnt (some) Bengali

August 18, 2008

I had no choice but to learn Bengali. I grew up in a suburb of Jamshedpur- Sonari West- where nearly 85% of our neighbors on our street were Bengalis. So I grew up listening to the language, from the domestic help to the shopkeepers, street vendors and all the odd-job men. Despite Jamshedpur being in Bihar then (Jharkhand came into being decades later) we, the Hindi/ Bhojpuri speaking family were considered a bit of a curiosity in the area! The neighboring Jetha Moshai, Kaku, Pishi, Boudi and everyone else would speak to us in Bengali assuming that we were all fluent in the language. Thinking back now, I suspect, despite knowing that we were not fluent in the language they would speak to us in their language anyway. The best concession they would make is the addition of some token Hindi to their Bangla. Like: “Ai chheley, tum amaar janno bazaar sey dim kinega?” (will you buy some eggs from the market for me?). “Nishchoi, Jetha Moshai”. (of course, Uncle).


So, did I have a choice but not to learn the basics of Bangla?


Not that I minded learning the language. In fact, I took it rather seriously and decided to learn how to read and write in Bengali as well. I obtained for myself the basic kindergarten equivalent text book and practiced writing the rounded, sensuously shaped characters. I would also occasionally borrow from our neighbours a kiddies magazine called “Shuktara” and would read up the comic strip “Handa Bhonda” is nothing else. Does the magazine (and the strip) still exist?


Sometimes my Hindi upbringing would get the better of me and I would read Bengali the Hindi way! One example which I still remember was the name of a house close to ours. It was called “Usha Tara”, and I would read it as “Ddesha Tara”, the “oo” in Bengali having a close resemblance to the Hindi D! Also the complicated “juktakshars” (conjugated alphabet) spook me even now despite my valiant attempts to master them!


There were opportunities to read Bengali aplenty. Starting from the political graffiti on the walls of the houses (Kangres ke bhot din– vote for Congress), to the shop signages (Joi Ma Tara Stationery Shop), to the wedding reception (bou bhaat) cards which would be received pretty frequently. One quaint line which found an invariable mention in these cards I still remember is “potrer dwaara trutir marjjina koriben”. Sometimes even the annaprashan (mukhey bhaat) cards would find their way to our household. I remember a mukhey bhaat invite from a neighbour which was actually a B&W picture of the poor cereal-starved kid with his face smeared in kajol. And the bold headline, which was actually an invite from the kid, saying, “Ami bhaat khabo”.


Talking about Bengali wedding receptions, these were something I looked forward to. The reason: the gorgeous food. Right from the slice of lemon (lemu) to the loochi, thick and sweetish chholar daal, maachh (fish) and mangsho (mutton). Climaxing with mishti doi and rosogollas. That was the era prior to the perfunctory buffets now so much in vogue. One actually sat down on sheet metal chairs while the food was served on leaf plates (pattals) hot from the kitchen. One would enter pandal and signages saying amish and niramish would welcome you. I would naturally head to the amish (non-vegetarian) section salivating at the thought of the heavenly mutton cooked in mustard oil!


Living where we were it was but natural that we would whole-heartedly participate in the Durga Puja celebrations. The excitement of waking up pre-dawn on the Mahalaya day and listening to Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s sonorous Chandi Path crackling through our Murphy radio set. The joy of buying new clothes, one set for each of the three main days of the Puja (that was also the annual shopping for clothes for us). Going around the Pujo pandals with friends. The gorgeous Khichudi Moha Prosad served for lunch (you had to buy “tokens” in advance for these). The booming dhaak and the evening arati dance competitions. And then came Bijoya (Dashmi) when we would visit our Bengali neighbours, touch the elders’ feet (the elders between themselves would do kola-koli) and have lots of mehidanaa and sondesh. And yes, ghugni too along with some loochi)!


And the jatras! For those uninitiated, Jatra is an open-air theater derived from folk traditions. It does not employ any props and relies solely on melodramatic story lines enacted even more melodramatically. Actors enter the stage through the audience seated all around the stage. The musicians sit around the periphery of the stage albeit at a level below the stage playing loud music, tabla, harmonium etc; the music reaching a crescendo when some heightened action happened on the stage. Jatra, in short, was theatre at its most theatrical. And I would love it. The anticipation would start building up well before the Pujas with cycle rikshwas going around the locality announcing the name, date and the timing of the Jatra which climaxed into the final reminder on the day of the Jatra. “Bhulben na bodhu gon, aaj rat, dash ghatikay…..” etc. etc. The Jatra would be held in an enclosure next to the Puja pandal and we would go there equipped with a sweater or a shawl in case it got chilly late in the night. I have spent many a Puja weeping along with the plight the tragic hero would get into and the woes of the wronged heroine. Sapan Kumar and Sapna Kumari were a popular pair those days!


My knowledge of Bangla (if I may call my frugal repertoire Bangla words “knowledge”) these days surfaces at some very unexpected places. Like the time when I had an animated chat with the owner of an “Indian” restaurant in North Holland. (“Indian” is a descriptor of convenience for restaurants serving South Asian cuisine outside India. These are typically run by Pakistanis and mostly by Bangaldeshis.) After more than a week hearing Dutch, it was such joy to be able to speak with someone in a language so familiar. Besides, of course, the joy of eating roti and sabzi and daal.


I will end this piece with a little story about how my knowledge of Bangla earned me an eternally grateful acquaintance. Many years ago, when I was first began living in Bangalore in the early period of my career, I would visit the panwallah next to where I stayed to get my day’s quota of cigarettes. One morning, I saw from afar a gentleman in an animated discussion with my friend, the panwallah. Obviously the customer was not able to get his point across much to the chagrin of the pan-wallah who had many other customers to attend to. When I reached close I realized that the customer was a Bengali -a tourist from Kolkata. He was gesticulating wildly and nearly shouting, “Mouri hai? Mouri hai? Sheer desperation then, “Mouri, MOURI!” The poor panwallah had no clue what Mouri was. I decided to intervene and clarified that the out-of-towner was asking for some saunf, as simple as that!


I still remember the joy on the customers face on getting his request across! And the hug he nearly gave me for saving the day for him!

How I Learnt (some) Telugu

August 14, 2008

The first word I learnt in Telugu was oddu. Oddu means “I don’t want”. This was during my management trainee days in an FMCG company more than twenty years ago. Here I was, a greenhorn, set loose in Andhra Pradesh to learn how to sell. The work entailed visiting shop-to-shop, at least 40 a day (you were admonished if the score was lower) trying to get the shopkeepers to stock your products, and stock more if they were already selling your products. And oddu was the response one frequently encountered. Rare was the time when any in the trade ever said kurchundi (please sit).


Life got a little more complicated when I discovered other words in Telugu which expressed a negative response. Each means “no” but each is used in specific context. Kadu– it is not that, ledu– no, teliyedu– I do not know. Many a time when I was asked whether I need something (say, an additional helping of majjiga –buttermilk- during lunch) and I would respond ledu, evoking a funny glance from the waiter before he realized that I was new to Telugu!


My selling duties introduced me to Telugu counting. But the circumstances in which I really learnt how to count were completely different. I have written about learning the basic counting in an earlier post called “Booze Stories: Part One” on this blog. But a sales person needs something more advance than basic counting, for example quoting the price of a case lot of our product. The grandiose sounding Nalugu vandala muppai tommidi, irvai meant Rs 439.20. This price pertained to our fastest selling product for which I would rarely hear oddu, but mostly aaunu, or aaonundi (yes, please).


One beautiful word in the language- and I do not think there is an equivalent in any other Indian language- is the word for drinking water. Manchi Neelu. Neelu  means water, but you do not ask for just water when you want to quench your thirst, you ask for good water, manchi neelu. Manchi being the word for good.


And that reminds me of the “undies” of Telugu language. The suffix “undi” denotes respect. The aforesaid kurchundi translates in Hindi to baithiye while kurcho is baitho. And the Andhraites are sticklers for manners and respectful speech. So, oddu was not what they said, it was oddandi. “Nahin chahiye ji”!


But what I had a pretty difficult time reconciling to was the word for ‘’aaiye”. “Ra” is the word for “aao”. You guessed it right, “randi” is the respectful word which means “please come”, or “aaiye”.


Talking about politeness and manners, Telugu must be one of the most respectful sounding languages on earth. The soft, lilting Telugu heard in Coastal Andhra is a treat to the ears. Even very heated discussions would go thus:


Person 1:

What he actually says: “You are one dirty scumbag and you have no right to live after you have screwed me so royally.”

What this sounds to a non-Telugu observer: “You are the center of my universe and I will mostly humbly kiss the earth you tread upon”.


Person 2:

What he actually says “You really think I have screwed you? You have not seen anything yet, buddy. Wait till I unleash myself on various (female) relatives of your family.”


What this sounds to a non-Telugu observer: “Sir, it is you who inspires me to greater glories, I pray your life is filled with joy, laughter and happiness.


And so on and so forth.


Not that all of Andhra speaks such musical Telugu, it is just the reverse in Telangana and Rayalaseema.


In Rayalaseema (southern part of the state) they may even pepper the conversation with a few country-made bombs. Those familiar with the socio-political environment of Rayalaseema would know about the bomb-making cottage industry flourishing there.


And in Telangana (area north of Hyderabad), they would add a generous smattering of Hindi and Urdu words. Example: “Dimaak kharab aaipoinda?” (Have you gone nuts?).


The Andhra-ites love movies (the popularity of NTR being a good example), and I love movies too. So it was but natural for me to see some Telugu movies. The stories would be melodramatic, as any mass-appeal Indian film is. I would get-by with a brief introduction to the plot by a helpful colleague. I did learn a few words too in the process. I still remember the names of a couple of popular films of that era, “Jebbu Donga” (Jebbu= pocket, Donga= thief; pickpocket). Another filmy thief on the prowl those days was “Manchi Donga“ (Good Thief).


Telugu people love their music too. And I could not help but fall in love with the popular Telugu film songs. In fact I loved one of them so much that I hunted far and wide for the song and a recorded version is my prized possession even now. The song “Mabbulo yemundi, manasulo yemundi” (“what is there in the clouds, what is their in your mind”) is a classic song sung by Ghantashala and Sushila, the equivalent of Rafi and Lata. Maybe even better!


I even had the privilege of an encounter with a veteran singer, his name eludes me now, whose one popular song I still remember, “Ghumma lakdi, ghumma lakdi…”. We met in the overnight Narsapur Express on our way from Hyderabad to Vijayawada.


And do the Telugu people love food! I, despite this being my first stay or even a visit to the South of the Vindhyas, got hooked on to the Andhra cuisine. Do not get scared when other people describe it is spicy and warn you with dire events during the morning after ablutions. Just settle down to an Andhra meal (so endearingly called mealsu  colloquially in Telugu; bhojanam is the correct word but no one uses it) and dig into heaps of the lovely Nellore rice sequentially with pappu (daal), the globally famous gun powder (spiced daal powder, pappalu podi)+ghee, sambar, rasam and curd (perugu)/pickles and take sips of majjiga. Throw in a “Chicken 65” if you feel rich and have some rupees to spare. If the taste is still not spicy enough for your exacting standards there are always the two staples to fall back on: the zesty gongura pickle and the fried chillis). After this indulgence, you are most welcome to slouch on one of the couches in the reception area specially placed for this purpose. You may even catch a wink or two while you let the copious quantity of rice you have just consumed to settle in before you set out for the rest of the day’s work.


While I did manage to learn enough to survive in Andhra Pradesh, and some of the words are still there in my memory, there is one stupid mistake I continue to make. And this is one helluva silly mistake for a sales guy to make when he is out selling. Telugu questions end with the “aa” sound, and the answer is in the “ee” sound. For example, “do you want” is kawala and the answer should be, if you do want that is, kawaali. I, of course. would think in Hindi where if someone asks “chahiye” you say “chahiye” in response and then the deal is done. Here I was in Andhra, the green-horn sales guy trying to transact my business in broken Telugu, saying kawaala when the shopkeeper would soften up to my sales spiel and offer to place an order. “Order kawala?” I would respond “kawaala” with strong emphasis on the word hoping to indicate to the shopkeeper how keen I was to get his order. He would give me a quizzed look, wondering why this idiot (me) who is being offered his order asking the same question back to him (the shopkeeper)! However, Telugu people are intrinsically very polite and the shopkeeper would take the order book from my hands, fill in the order himself. I would quickly recover in the meanwhile and with a flourish request him to append his signature to the order; “santakam petandi, saar!” Order procured, task accomplished, it was time to move on to the next shop. Bagundi. Good!! Chala Bagundi, very good!


Ante kada. That’s all! Vastanandi! See you again!

How I Learnt (some) Urdu

August 3, 2008

In the 1970’s we used to subscribe to a Hindi newsmagazine called “Dinman”. This was a serious news magazine from the Bennet Coleman stable. Like most other decent publications from the publishing house (remember Parag, Dharmyug, Madhuri and Illustrated Weekly of India?), this magazine too is defunct now. Dinman was my Urdu teacher! This magazine ran serialized tutorials on different languages; Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati, Oriya etc. Don’t ask me why a news magazine was teaching languages, but what a blessing this was! And don’t even ask what a kid like me (I was around 14 years then) was doing reading Dinman, least of all learning languages as a hobby!


Of all the languages taught, Urdu caught my fancy. For no particular reason. What really got me hooked was the teacher’s style; he taught the script via Devnagari! Urdu as a derivative of Devnagari was his theme. And he did not start the usual way by teaching alphabet alif, bey, pey Take, for example, his initial lesson. He explained that the Urdu “R” was a twin of its Hindi cousin. Urdu, as we all know is a “right-to-left” script; So, Urdu R (called “ref”) he said, was a mirror image of the Hindi R. And since Urdu is a script which is written very rapidly, superfluous strokes are dispensed with to accelerate the speed. Just like stenography. Hence the horizontal stroke above the Hindi R was dropped for ease of speedy writing. So the mirror image of Hindi R minus the “hat” becomes the Urdu R. Simple!




Similarly he deconstructed the Devnagari “D” and made it the Urdu “daal”. Hold the D in front of the mirror, knock off the superfluous horizontal stroke on top, remove the squiggle at the base of the alphabet, and there you have the Urdu D! (As an additional coincidence, this is similar to the Roman D minus the horizontal stroke.)





To convert R and D to Ra and Da, one needs to only add a vertical stroke (the famous Urdu “alif”) next to the alphabet. Just as in Hindi. (The mirror image of the Devnagari aakar will remain a top-to-down vertical stroke!). Just take care to add the stroke to the left of the alphabet instead of right as in Devnagari. So we could now construct our first Urdu word, albeit a proper noun: Dara!




Urdu J? No problem! Knock off the horizontal hat and the vertical stroke, take a mirror image and you are close to the Urdu J (“jim”). Just add a dot right in the center of the curved space. After all you are writing Urdu script and a few dots will make the writing aesthetically pleasing! (My observation- it is not what the teacher said). And Cha (called “chim”) was only one step away. Except that there were no mirrors images here, only deletion of the superfluous strokes of the Devnagari “cha”. And 3 beautiful dots nestling right in the center of the curved space.




My Urdu teacher was a genius!


The mirror-image of the Devnagari “Chandra-bindu” looks the same. The “chandra-bindu” imparts a subtle “N” sound. And this, true enough, is your Urdu N (called “noon”). A simple transpose of the Devnagari M (of course after dropping the superfluous strokes in the alphabet) converts it to the Urdu M (“mim”). And so on and so forth. Urdu was becoming fun.





I am not for a moment implying all Urdu script is this simple. But once you got hooked on, you would try to conquer this seemingly complex script. And complexities started pretty quickly. Joining alphabet was the basic one. There is an art in writing even a simple word like “shama”. You don’t write simply a “sha” and an “M” and add an alif, the alphabet need to be fused correctly. And you do not even use an alif in spelling shama!Then the choice of multiple alphabet having similar sounds (choose from 3 varieties of Ha sound and 2 varieties of K sound). And the struggle to remember to place the dots (nuqta) in the right place. One could make grievous errors here. An example which is also a popular proverb is about a misplaced dot which while writing “Khuda” (God) would convert it to “juda” (separated). Remember the saying “Nuqtey key her-pher sey khuda juda ho gaya”?






My father saw me making valiant attempts to learn Urdu, and he decided do  something about it. He knows Urdu (in the olden times in the North students would compulsorily study Urdu) and he helped me learn forming the alphabet with the right strokes. Remember I was learning the script without the help of a traditional teacher whose strokes I could copy and learn how to write. More importantly, my father bought me the Urdu text book for Std 1. I think it was called “Dara, Dawar, Rosie”. This was modeled on its Hindi counterpart for Std 1 called “Rani, Madan, Amar”. My mother frowned at this waste of time in learning what in her opinion was a useless language, but both my father and I enjoyed these learning sessions.


As I learnt more, I began to harbor secret ambitions of writing ghazals, I thought it was just a matter of time before India produced its next Ghalib!


Ghazals were still far away and my interest in Urdu script did not sustain for too long. Perhaps it had also to do with other diversions I was developing, movies being the major one. And slowly my Urdu lessons slowed and soon halted.


But even now, I do remember a fair amount of Urdu script. And this keeps getting revised in strange little ways. For example when on a flight from Hyderabad I chance upon “Siasat” the local Urdu daily, I try my hand at reading the headlines. Pretty tough now for me, but if I know the context of the news item I guess my way through based on some of the characters I recognize. While on a trip to Lahore last year, I had a field day impressing my Pakistani hosts about my knowledge of the script by reading aloud the shop sign-boards. I would, in typical neo-literate style, slowly read the word character-by-character and then join them together into a word. Like this: La…. Ho… Ra, Lahore!


And the Urdu script comes as the most pleasurable diversion in official meetings! Whenever I get bored, I doodle. Unlike most who would draw Rorschachian figures or worse still moustachioed villains in their notepads, I let my pen flow forming the aesthetically pleasing strokes of Urdu script. Boredom and corporate intricacies then seem far, far way!