Linguistic Chaos

  • As experienced and written by – Trilok Rangan
  • Inspiration to pen this and title suggested by –  My brother Ashwin
  • Corrected by – Jens Joseph
  • Thanks to my friends who read the manuscript and gave their valuable inputs

I was early at the station, a full 30 minutes before my train arrived. It was the much awaited Diwali week and looked to me as if the entire Bangalore was travelling. The winter winds played havoc tossing the empty paper cups and litter around the platform. But nothing stopped people from heading home. People in all shapes and sizes ran around frantically with bags which screeched, rolled, lumbered along with them. Children were in a playful mood, some of them running, some of them chasing the stray dog that found its way to the ‘passenger’ platform. A very few babies were crying like factory sirens. Amidst this familiar haphazardness, I bought an English magazine, found an empty bench, and started browsing the pages peacefully tuned to the only English FM channel. Travelling is something I love and hate at the same time. I love the people I meet, the experiences and the memories it gives but I hate the discomfort some journeys ‘gift’. However, that particular night had enough in store to thrill me. At 10.00 p.m., the Bangalore – Kanyakumari Island Express dragged its way to Platform 2. I admire Indian Railways for they manage the extensive rail network through the length and breadth of a country like India, catering to a huge population while pricing their tickets economically. I often wonder how can they run this millipede on such low charges! For all I know, they must be subsidizing it out of my tax money. So, I hardly minded my coach being overly crowded. People reserved real estate on the dirty floor with two sheets of newspaper; spread it across wherever they could squeeze in their tired bodies. They gave the beggars and tea vendors a real fight. My seat number was 68, close to the not so fragrant toilets.

My coupe was already full- three students, probably doing nursing, a woman and her husband, two middle aged men – one of them an engineer with a reputed IT company in Bangalore (his laptop bag advertised it loud) and an old woman who seemed somehow related to one of the middle-aged men. My coupe was too full for the six seats it legally allowed. I crosschecked my reservation and sat down. Half an ass of mine hung in the air as if I was on a crowded share-auto, paying half the rate and waiting to jump out the moment my stop comes. With much difficulty, I managed to squeeze the other cheek of my ass on to the seat. Shortly, the T.T.E. (Ticket Examiner) showed up. I got my tickets validated and spoke to him in broken Kannada and English. Thus, kick-started the chain of events that would climax the next day with blank looks and embarrassed faces.

Having completed the formalities, we all eased on to our respective seats. For some reason I wanted to avoid a conversation on that day. I pulled out the magazine and started reading it. I was immersed into the magazine when the old woman made a bold statement in Malayalam to the younger man on her right. “I think he is not a Malayalee. Look at his hair color, his overall looks and the way he speaks. He doesn’t seem like one and it doesn’t look like he understands us too!” Everyone in the coupe heard her. Inside my heart a wicked smile appeared. I understood the implied meaning and the pun intended in her tone. I am a Tamil Iyer from Kerala, the so-called Palakkad Iyer, settled in a town called Chalakudy near Thrissur. We speak Tamil at home. Having done my schooling in Kerala I know Malayalam far better than my mother tongue. I graduated in Electrical Engineering from a college in North India. Therefore, I divorced the typical Malayali accent from my English long back and added fluent Madrasi acquireHindi to my vocabulary. Besides, I lacked the typical Malayali moustache and had acquired a copper tinge to my hair, which was just because I oiled my hair far less. I did not raise my head from the book or show any sign of comprehending the language, and kept flipping the pages. I was curious to know where that conversation was headed to.

My mobile phone buzzed. It was my Dad. I always speak to him in Tamil. While speaking I managed a steal a look at the face of the old woman. She had an air of confirmation, an elated feeling like a 10-year old kid winning a bet at school. She turned and smiled deviously, nodding like an over-sized Halloween pumpkin, at the man whom she had been talking all the while. She probably was his paternal aunt since the man spoke less and restricted to wordless conversation techniques like nodding in all directions, simply smiling etc.  To my surprise, I managed to attract the attention of even the nursing students, all girls from some college in Bangalore. They were going to the southern part of Kerala, which was evident from their Malayalam accent with the typical Kottayam slang. They too started assuming that I was from Mars and Malayalam was alien to me. They liked my smile though. The pretty and smart one giggled, “He must be a corporate guy on business travel to Cochin. Cochin has become so cosmopolitan. People from throughout India have settled there and travelling home to Cochin these days. I think I will like to settle down in Cochin rather than the Gulf” She was trying to sound genuine. The girl with smaller head agreed, “Right. Anyways he looks cute. Must be less than 25. Just that he is a little fat around the edges.” The third one was either intelligent or dumb. She just smiled. The difference between being fat and getting fit is replacing that round ‘a’ and with a thin ‘i’, easier said than done. One of my ears was glued to the phone and my other one picked up the stray conversations like a misplaced radio receiver. I said bye, ended the phone call and picked up the book pretending to be reading. By now, I had begun to enjoy the conversation where they were trying to give me an identity.

To add to the curiosity that my linguistic chaos was causing, I received a call from my colleague Abhishek. We often converse in Hindi. He had some questions on the client delivery on a software module that I was working on. Well, I was so involved in the conversation that my voice got a bit loud and I failed to notice the myriads of changing expressions that painted the faces of my coupe-mates. Only when I finished the call did I notice that almost all the eyes were glued on my face. Well, I do not like people staring at me for whatever reason be it, admiration or condemnation. The middle-aged software engineer gave me inquiring looks. I think the words ‘client delivery’ inspired him and looked eager to add to the technical jargon. I thought that he wanted to initiate a conversation with me and was probably fumbling for the right words.  These days, I hear software engineers are better off communicating through a chat window where eye contact would be minimal. May be being in the hi-tech industry he might have got used to that medium than real-time communication! I guess I should have given him my Facebook ID.

I had the day’s Economic Times that I took from my office lobby, stuffed on one side of my small backpack. The young couple had a probing glance at the paper and then me. They were having the privilege of reading the paper upside down kept on my lap. I have often noticed a strange human behavior – if you buy a newspaper, you do not read it fully. However, if your fellow passenger has a paper and he is sitting next to you then you crane your neck and manage to read it much to the owner’s displeasure, at times requesting the center page or the sports page from him. Well, I have only one suggestion to the people with this psychiatric problem – buy your own paper and give it the person sitting next to you. Then start reading the paper when he or she is reading it. That way you would not displease him and satisfy your mental condition!

I opened my food packet from Subway and pulled out a bottle of Coke from my backpack. I kept the two on top of the yellow business newspaper. That was when my “hot under the collar” boss decided to call me. I had a heated conversation with him. The call extended for 10-15 long minutes. This conversation obviously was in English. It was getting late. I gobbled my food, washed my hands and face, and immediately asked the crowd to disperse, as I wanted to sleep in my designated middle berth.

The young couple spoke for the first time. The man of the house implored me in Indian English to exchange my berth with another one which was just two coaches away so that his wife can sleep in the same coupe. I politely refused the offer. I was making a master plan for tomorrow. Therefore, I decided to stay in the same coach. He swore in Malayalam assuming that I would not know the meaning. It did not cross him when a man learns a new language or travels to a new state that speaks a different language; the first words he acquaints himself with are the verbal abuses. I managed to look away and ignore the swearing.

After the lights were out the lower berth folks started talking about how I lacked manners and was not ready to adjust. She (the elderly) thought that I was a featherbedded brat. “Money and life in Bangalore affect the kids the most”, she declared. Everyone seemed to share the same opinion. A hymn of acceptance echoed from the other souls as well. “When I was young…” Was she ever young? That question crossed my mind. She started the story of her childhood days and youth when her angelic qualities were unmatched. She was polite, caring and helping everyone. Then she became a devoted mother and taught her kids how not to be like me. She was not hearing the loud snores of people around her.

The three girls managed on the upper berths. The third one travelling on a waiting list ticket managed to share the berth with the thinner girl. Someone murmured, “Did you really like that guy?” The other replied, “Yes”. “She must be kidding”. I recognized that voice. It was the prettier one of the lot. “Didn’t you notice his ears? They are like elephant’s, awkward and projected out. His eyes are squinted esp. when he looks to the right. His must be overweight by at least 15 kilos.””Forget all of that, how did you end up having a crush or whatever it may be, on him when you hardly have spoken to him?” Forget all that. She can forget but how can I? Every word of her hit me like arrows. I am overweight but not obese. Do my eyes cheat when I look to the right and my ears they seem quite normal! My well-wisher interrupted, “Quiet, he will hear you”. I thought to myself, “The damage has already been done what more could you do?” “He can’t understand Malayalam”. She sounded confident.

I slept, far removed from the English word -”peacefully”. My coach rocked like a cradle to the lullaby of the noise from the railway tracks outside. The next day, I woke up to the rumble of my empty stomach. As usual, the train was running late by an hour. After brushing my teeth and emptying a major portion of sanitizer on my palms, I had my breakfast and morning tea. Train seemed reluctant to move from Palghat station. I noticed that the software engineer had got down somewhere in between and office goers had filled his seat. Three white pressed dhotis fitted the place where one pants once sat. The rest of the gang was now impatiently waiting for the train to move. It seemed they had a tiresome and long journey ahead. I had an hour more of travel left provided the driver and the invisible gods of railways permitted motion.

Finally, the train tiptoed at the pace of a bullock cart. Children on cycles screamed elatedly as they overtook ourbcoach. I took my camera out, started zooming in on them, and captured a few snaps. Bharatapuzha came soon. It is the largest river in Kerala but with the least amount of water except during monsoons. Thanks to the slow pace of the train, I managed to take a few more good pictures. That was when my fellow passengers tried to strike a conversation with me.

They could not speak Martian so English was preferred. The gray haired middle-aged man accompanying his aunt spoke, “Are you a professional photographer?” With a Canon point-and-shoot camera, I can hardly claim to be a semi-professional. I corrected him “I am just an amateur enthusiast, learning.” Now, others found words. They too quizzed me, “Are you going for a trip to tour Kerala – God’s own country?” This time it was the woman – one-half of the couple from yesterday. “No, I am going back home visiting my family for Diwali”, I was happy to correct them. They looked surprised. The girls giggled. May be they wanted me to take a picture of theirs. I did not. They all asked me a few more questions and kept me occupied. The topics of discussion ranged from globalization and liberalization to allotting another train from Bangalore to Trivandrum. They also touched upon topics like how Kerala would benefit if it opens up trade like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The atmosphere shifted to the one inside a barbershop or a tea-stall in Kerala where the topics of discussion varied from the depression in the American Economy to the health of Fidel Castro.

Time went flying by and before I realized my destination came. I packed my stuff and got ready to get off the train. People were surprised that I was getting off at a small town. The girls spoke for the first time to me, ’Hey mister, are you sure this is your stop?’ I reassured them that my Dad would be waiting. I gave the woman and the pretty girl a chit of paper each folded into four. They opened the chit. In loud and intentional words, I told the crowd near the door in fluent Malayalam – “Please move. I need to get off here.” Chits were opened. The woman’s note read in Malayalam, “My parents also brought me up well and I know how to respect elders.” The Girl read out in Malayalam, “I am fat, squint-eyed, elephant-eared and taken.”

I turned back to have a look at the coupe. The blank looks and embarrassed faces of five fellow travellers thinking about the night before on the train painted a sorry picture. I walked away with a victorious smile on my face and a wicked glow in my eyes talking aloud in Malayalam.