Taxi driver – “Engay, madam?”
Me and my colleagues (not having a clue of what he just said) – “Bhaiya, we want to go to RS
Puram, Forest College.”
Taxi driver – “Aww-pposite GCT, madam?”
Me – “RS Puram, bhaiya… State Forest College!”
Taxi driver – “Wo-kay wo-kay, madam… wo-kay!”
Join Writersbrew guest writer Yangchen Bhutia as she and her friends learn Tamil.. konjim konjim..
This was the first interaction we had with any “Anna”… well, we did not know we had to call
them “Anna” here… we were just so used to using the term “Bhaiya”, so blatantly being used
everywhere in North India.
So firstly, the background…..
19 of us from the state of Sikkim (North-East India) had qualified in the State Forest Service Exam
and had to undergo a two-year compulsory training course in Forestry from the Central Academy for State Forest Service, Coimbatore. I was born and brought up in Sikkim, where the common language is Nepali, official language is English and almost everyone understands Hindi (courtesy Bollywood!). People could even find an English-speaking conversation partner to learn the official language better. I had completed my graduation in Ranchi, Jharkhand (North India), where, as somebody once mentioned, everyone talks in plural form… “Hum market jaa rahe hain”… “Humko lagta hai ke tum sathiya gaye ho”… They say it takes you two months to pick up an accent. So did I.
Thereafter, I shifted to Delhi (again North India) for work and again owing to the two-months-pick-up-accent rule, I shed the plural form of Hindi language and all my “Hums” were converted to “Meins”. I’m grateful to Delhi for at least that part. So basically, after a lifetime of non-exposure to anything related to South India or its languages, I (and so was the case with the rest 18 of them too) had just reached Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu where I had to spend the next two years of my life (which did not seem as much exciting at that time, as it turned out to be).
So, while we sat in the taxi impatiently, we almost had a tour of about half of Coimbatore. Three of us in the taxi and not even one of us could figure out anything written anywhere along the roads. Every board in every shop or any hoarding was all written in, what we all presumed to be – “TAMIL”. There were movie posters on walls, advertisements, sign boards, posters showing: (what we call in North India again) “Sadhus” (and I still do not know what we call them in Tamil…).
While I was pondering on all this, my colleague Bhumika sitting just next to me suddenly says, “I wonder what all these posters are about; I wish I knew how to read Tamil. I think I will try and learn Tamil so that by two years I will be able to figure out what all these posters say.”
So the next day we were out shopping for our hostel room essentials, she comes out from some shop with a book in her hand saying – “Learn Tamil in 30 days.” We were all thinking she is just kidding and did not really mean it… but the next day when she started learning up alphabets from the book and words out of it, we were all in it too!
A few days later two more people bought it.
Now while this book was helping us learn basic Tamil like the numbers – Onre, Randa, Moor,
Naala (One, Two, Three, Four) and few words like Kadhai (Shop), Tanni (Water), Putthakam (Book) and few more, all the Annas in our hostel and the academy were helping us converse in basic Tamil (special thanks to the continuous efforts of the ever energetic peon of the institute, Kaalimutthu Anna).
“Kaale wannakam! Eppady erikingey, madam?” every day he would ask in his enthusiastic tone and we had to reply, “Naalla erikingey, anna!”
“Anna, how do we say please give me water” and they would be like, “Tanni kudungey daivya-setu, madam”; again she would ask, “And how do we say, did you have food?” again they would answer “Sappada chappada?”.
Then there were these once-in-a-while lessons from the mess staff Bhaskar Anna and Ravi Anna
(The only two Annas who could converse in Hindi, which was an immense help for us, especially during our mess duties). But they only used to explain what was asked. Most of the times it used to be Bhumika (ever-inquisitive about anything) who would ask them things like, “Anna, how do we say ‘please give me water?’” and they would be like, “Tanni kudungey daivya-setu, madam”; again she would ask, “And how do we say, ‘did you have food’?” again they would answer “Sappada chappada?”. While this would be going on, all of us there would be repeating the same lines trying to remember them, getting corrected each time we said it incorrectly.
And as days passed by, we would try and learn Tamil from about anyone and anywhere, from auto-rickshaw drivers to fruit stall-keepers, and even watching Tamil movies or listening to Tamil songs. (And this is when we realized that many Hindi movies and songs are actually copied from Kollywood – Bhool Bhulaiya (Chandramukhi – Tamil), Ghazini (Ghazini – Tamil), Dum (Dhill – Tamil)… and the list goes on…
How many of these Bollywood movies are genuine anyways?!
After learning a little bit of Tamil (what we call Konjim Konjim), we realized that the language is of tremendous help when dealing with the local shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc. (Especially the bargaining that we get to do when we utter one or two words of Tamil).
Once it so happened that we had to hire two auto-rickshaws. We asked the fare for both simultaneously, only difference was that to one of them we asked, “Anna, how much is it?” and to the other we asked, “Anna evelu?”; and believe me, the former fare was exactly double of the latter.
By the end of two years, we did not become experts in the language but were able to get a hint of what the conversation is about if people are conversing in front of us in Tamil. But as far as reading and writing are concerned, it would take us ages to understand this java-script-look-alike coded language.
indrani robbinsFebruary 16, 2017 at 6:51 pm
delightful piece. many thanks, yangchen.
tamil is lovely and tricky. i live in singapore, tamil is the most widely spoken indian language here, it’s one of the country’s main languages. so when i first came and joined work here, many people would assume i spoke tamil. 🙂 i was regularly called “thangachi”… i think it means sister (or maybe something else and i never knew hehe). i also loved the pictures, that sense of the indian government services. grew up in the north east, and sometimes i just so enjoy seeing the diversity that is india. thank you again. hope the forest service presents you with many great adventures.
Yangchen BhutiaFebruary 16, 2017 at 9:20 pm
Thanks Indrani for the appreciation… it’s actually an old piece and one of my first articles may be after school… hopefully I will get motivated further with friends like you and Rhea ?
“Thangachi” actually is younger sister in Tamil and “Akka” is for elder sister.
Yes and India is so diverse that I feel every state in India could represent another country in itself…hehe…from diversity of culture to nature.
Forest department is so versatile that I feel lucky to be a part of it and that too in a state where nature is a way of life!
Thanks again! Keep reading keep writing ??
DurgaSFebruary 16, 2017 at 8:30 pm
Hello Yangchen. Loved the piece and I can very much relate to your adventures with Tamil. I am a non Tamilian living in Chennai for the past many years. I can converse in Tamil now but I can never forget those early days when I landed in Chennai and had to tussle with Tamil. Though I did come with an advantage as my mother knew Tamil and I was acquainted with few basic words. But that didn’t make it any easier. The accent they spoke in made it all worse. Many times I wished I could just talk in Hindi, it would have been so much easier. 😀
The movies, the songs have been a big help while learning Tamil. And about movies being remade in Hindi, it’s being going on since ages, since the black and white days. If there’s a Hindi hit, there is a high probability of it being remade in the southern languages and vice versa. I have even seen Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Oriya hits being remade in other languages. Btw, Chandramukhi is a remake of a 1993 Malayalam movie Manichitrathazhu, for which the lead actress Shobhana received a National award. So the trail of Bhool bhulaiya is actually longer. 🙂
Happy to read your experience. I hope the konjum Tamil that you learnt, you will remember. You never know when you might need it again.
Yangchen BhutiaFebruary 16, 2017 at 9:31 pm
Hi Durga! I’m glad you liked my piece. Tamil, in fact all South Indian languages are tough I feel. And like u rightly mentioned, the accent makes it tougher. We struggled for two years and managed to learn only a few words or sentences here and there. But it was fun! ?
Apart from the language and movies I got exposed to Tamil songs as well, and I fell in love with the music there. It’s so amazing and soothing.
Yes and the Tamil I learnt I will never forget cos it has come through experience and struggle ?
Thank you! Keep reading and keep writing ??