Sunday, August 4, 2013

Language Lessons on the Bombay Local

(A version of this was first published on NewsYaps)

The Bombay local is a fascinating place. It does a great job of bringing us closer to humanity—a lot of humanity when you’re travelling during rush hour. And it makes you appreciate the important things in life like...air, or deodorant.

It also, sometimes gives you an interesting close-up (some would say too close) of life in urban India and its peccadilloes.

Here’s an account of an interesting exchange I witnessed this morning.

During rush hour, space is low and, as a result, tempers often run high. In the bogie I was in, two people (I’ll call them Manjrekar and Sharma) got into a short altercation. Manjrekar chided Sharma for being a space hogger. Interestingly, he spoke in Marathi. No matter the language politics which surrounds the issue, in Bombay the lingua franca is unequivocally Hindi. In the public spaces of the city, Hindi is the preferred and indeed only medium of communication.

Either Sharma was the quiet sort or maybe he was penitent (because he might have actually been at fault), whatever be the reason, he chose not to say anything in return. This lack of response was clearly unsatisfactory for Manjrekar who was in the mood for a bit of scene. He turned to his friend, who we’ll call Tendulkar, and complained loudly about “people like Sharma”. Again in Marathi.

“People like this, think they own the train. They’ll just climb on and take up so much space.”

Tendulkar, who clearly had some strong views about the evils of space-hogging himself, nods and, just to make sure his opinion has been recorded, looks back at Sharma and scowls.

Manjrekar also looks back at Sharma and says, in Marathi: “People like these need to get off the local and take a cab. They’re better suited to that.”

In all of this Sharma remains quiet. Sharma is dressed for office, by the way, and is wearing a neatly pressed checked shirt and formal trousers. He’s carrying a black leather laptop bag in this right –hand. From his right breast-pocket snake out a pair of white headphones which now lie around his neck, unplugged from his ears. He wears a pair of expensive, rimless spectacles, which seem horribly unsuited to the hustle-bustle of the local.

This Gandhian lack of response on Sharma’s part now gets Tendulkar’s goat. This time he talks directly to Sharma. He says, in English: Shouldn’t you make space for others when you’re on a train? Other people need to get on and off too you know!”

Before Sharma has a chance to reply, Manjrekar addresses Tendulkar. Irritably he says, “Why did you have to speak to him in English? Speak to him in Marathi!”. In Marathi, of course

Tendulkar, replies: “Yes, yes, I just thought...”

“Thought? Thought what? Get rid of this slave mentality. If you can speak to me in Marathi why did you use English with him?”

Sensing weakness in the opposing camp, Sharma at last found his voice.

“I know all the languages. Talk to me in English, Hindi, Marathi, whatever you want”, he boasted... in Hindi.

Unfortunately, by now the train was pulling into Tendulkar and Majrekar’s station so maybe because of that neither of them attempted a response. Anyway, by then, the main target of Manjrekar’s ire seemed to be Tendulkar for his faux pas of switching languages.

Without any further remark the two of them got off.

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