When I had moved to Bangalore, I was, of course Kannada illiterate. But very soon I realized that I could get away by suffixing just one single syllable to a lot of English words and “speak” to locals who did not understand English and Hindi. Or Bangla.
Like if I had to direct the auto rickshaw wala to take a left turn, all I had to do was just say “left-aa”. Lingering a little longer on the “a”.
Soon I was prolifically saying right-aa, left-aa, tired-aa, and even food-aa. I was thrilled by the versatility of this one syllable which helped a “North Indian” like me transform a single word of English into a sentence – sometimes an innocuous statement, the rest of the times as a question.
The lady who helped me keep my apartment clean was an elderly matriarch called Muniamma. Muniamma wore glasses, as thick as the bottom of a soda water bottle. She wore printed cotton saris draped in the nauvari style. And she was on time every day.
Muniamma and I never talked. She spoke no Hindi or English and I no Tamil or Kannada, the two languages she spoke. Though we smiled a lot at each other. And when I say a lot, I mean even when the time she broke my favorite coffee mug which said – The World’s Best Daughter. Which I shameless must admit was a gift to myself, just as a reminder that I had to become one.
In between cleaning the apartment and flashing toothless smiles, Muniamma would also run some errands for me, especially the times I was having 16-hour days at work.
So this day, I was going over my vegetable and grocery list with Muniamma with our smiles, hand gestures, nods and the typical of bobbing of the head, which could be interpreted as yes, no, can’t say.
I mouthed “phool” and “gobhi” opening my jaws wide and raising my hands to shape a cauliflower. Muniamma looked puzzled. I quickly drew a big cone with leaves sprouting out. Muniamma peeked, lifted her glasses to look at me and giggled. I realized I had humiliated my way to bad drawing. So I leapt towards a blooming flower in the balcony, hoping she’d get some connection somewhere. Anywhere.
After being stuck on number six for a few exasperating minutes, Muniamma rolled the hundred rupee currency note in her hand, opened the front door and knocked on Mrs Uthappa’s door. Mrs U lived across my apartment and she took it upon herself to rescue me in my crisis situations from time to time. I quickly briefed Mrs U on the communication whirlpool Muniamma and I were stuck in and said – I am trying to tell Muniamma to bring me a C-A-U-L-I-F-L-O-W-E-R.
My utterance of the world “cauliflower” seemed to have hit Muniamma with a flash of brilliance. She took a few steps forward, slapped her right hand on her wrinkled forehead and repeated the word - C-A-U-L-I-F-L-O-W-E-R, and added the not-to-miss “aa” after it, making it sound like a question.
I could only stare back and join the jubilant Mrs Uthappa and the wickedly intelligent Munianna in a heartfelt laughter.
And I still do not know the Kannada word for Cauliflower. Do you?