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!