|Illustration: Akshita Monga|
Igrew up in the suburbs of Mumbai and apun ka childhood was really fatte. Kids would do a lot of bol bachchan on the ground but then had to back their shanpatti with kadak football skills. Those merely engaging in bhankaas were taken to the khopcha and given kharcha paani. One couldn’t go home and do panchayat about the lafda that happened on the ground because no one wants to be friends with a phattu who complains to mom. Also, because your bantai log wouldn’t be pleased, and tereko dho dalega. We believed in being bindaas and settling our nalla problems sumadi mein.
As we got into school, I turned out to be an average student who ended up scoring below average marks in Hindi. “Tereko kitna aaya?” I would ask my friend who also barely managed to scrape through. “Yaar apan to poora din Hindi mein-ich baat karte hai, sala phir locha kya hai?” we would wonder, staring at our paper, where we’d scored so less that our paper had more red markings than the US map after the 2016 Presidential Election. And just like that, we cleared school with thakela marks and never had to deal with Hindi in academics again.
All this while, no one ever told us that something was wrong, ki apunke Hindi mein jhol tha. How could they? The Bombay around us only validated and legitimised our tapori bhasha, because that is how everyone spoke all the time.
The rickshawallah wouldn’t look at you unless you addressed him as boss, we just assumed that the entire world had cutting chai as well, and no one ever questioned the use of the word rapchik as a compliment. It is like our little internal code that only we understand and are comfortable with. We Mumbaikars can be simultaneously impolite and find beauty in it. In my view, it is a generous dialect; polite, even though it doesn’t sound it. But being the language of the street, it is all-encompassing, temporarily bridging in the span of a conversation, unbridgeable divides.
As I grew older, in a quest to earn hari patti and make some khokhas, I joined a corporate office and had to travel to every khopcha of the country. One of these happened to be Delhi. I was already a chapter and totally in on the eternal Mumbai vs Delhi fight, ready to give as good as I got.
On my first day in the city, I was in a restaurant with a senior from work, who must be at least 20 years older than me. We were both going through the menu, and he asked me, “Aap kya lenge?”
“Aap?” What the fuck? Was this a prank video? Do I have to look into the hidden camera now? Itni respect? Mumbai – Delhi, we are supposed to hate each other! Man, you’re 20 years older, what is wrong with you? Oh, is he talking to me about Arvind Kejriwal?
It took me a few minutes to cotton on that he wasn’t making fun of me. Within moments of him referring to me as “Aap”, I felt guilty about every person I had spoken to in my life. As a self-respecting Mumbaikar, I don’t believe in aap, hum, and tum. We are from the land of tu, tereko, mereko, and apan.
Through our short conversation, I discovered a new and politer way to say things every 12 seconds and realised how – all these years – apan Hindi ki vaat laga raha tha boss. To ensure that I don’t embarrass myself on the trip again, I just avoided speaking in Hindi altogether as everyone around bombarded me with the sweetness of shudh Hindi. Ah, the disgust! I felt like I’d been thrown into this world and everyone else knew the secret, while I was the only ignorant fool around. Eventually, I overcompensated by trying to be extra polite with people. I didn’t want them to think “Ye kaun yeda aa gaya?”
Yet, I was a bit befuddled with Delhi, where a sentence could begin with the polite tum and could end with a madarchod. How could one be so polite and so rude, so quickly? I was mesmerised by its poetry.
As I spent more time at work, I interacted with several more people from North India, and was more than happy to adopt the sweeter version of the language. I adapted to their tone and words the same way Virat Kohli adapts to a seaming pitch in South Africa. But we all know Mumbai and Delhi aren’t supposed to get along.
So I now have to keep switching between the dialect I speak with my Mumbai friends and the one I adopt for my North Indian friends. Linguistically, I’m always in a constant state of confusion. Until the very last moment, I don’t know whether to reach for an aap or a tu. God forbid, I ever mess up. It’s a bit of a machmach – with consequences.
While interacting with a bantai once, I committed the sin of giving him some respect and referring to him with tum instead of tu, and the horror on his face said it all. It was almost like I’d insulted him, by being polite. “Abey saale!” he retorted, “Job mil gaya to ab pateli marega?” Don’t be formal, he meant, we only get along well when we’re being frank and rude to each other. It’s beautiful too – and personally, this kind of beauty is more than skin deep.
Whenever people start the debate around making Hindi the national language of the country, I’m always amazed. Forget the hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects that we can debate over, we will probably even struggle to come to terms with a mutually agreed version of Hindi. That’s something to celebrate – not struggle over.
PS: Sorry North India, but it’s not gol gappa. There’s puri, there’s pani. It’s pani puri. Chal, ab hawa aane de.
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