There are a few disadvantages of being educated in English medium schools. One is the inevitable difficulty with the vernacular. My limited knowledge of Urdu and Punjabi has caused me grief more than once. The most painful experience of this shortcoming is an incident that occurred when I was a child.
We lived next door to a delightful Punjabi family. The elders got along very well with each other as, in those days, neighbors were simply extended family, sharing everything together. The only thing that spoilt this wonderful relationship was the neighbor’s son who was a mean, tough and vicious ruffian who constantly hounded me. Not unnaturally, I avoided him like the plague.
I shall never forget the day my mother asked me to return a utensil she had borrowed from the neighbors. The utensil was a cute, rounded, wide necked metallic bowl that was used as a container for liquids. In our Urdu speaking household it was referred to as a ‘Kooza’. (Readers would be familiar with the proverb; ‘Darya ko Kooze mein bund Karna’. That is the utensil referred to in that wisdom).
I proceeded to the neighbor’s house and rang the doorbell. To my bad luck, the door was opened by the bully himself. Scared stiff, I nonetheless proceeded with the task of returning the utensil to its rightful owner as directed by my mother.
Eyes averted, I stretched out my hands and offered the ‘kooza’ to the boy silently.
“Oye, Aai Ke Hai?” was the gruff enquiry, in eloquent Punjabi.
I chose to remain silent and instead, leaned forward, stretching my tiny arms as far out as possible, hoping that he would take the utensil from my hands.
He asked again, this time in a more menacing voice; “Oye, Mai Puchia, Aai Ke Hai”
I could have answered him in English. I could have answered him in Urdu. I could have just left the utensil on the doorstep and walked away. I did none of these things. Instead, for some obscure reason which I regret to this day, I had a light bulb moment.
A strange thought flashed across my mind that if I answered him in Punjabi, if I spoke to the bully in his own language, he would perhaps feel less animosity towards me. I should never have done that. Punjabi was a language that I had absolutely no mastery over at that time. I should not have tried speaking it under such adverse circumstances. I should not have answered him in imperfect Punjabi, using incorrect inflection. This I know now. This is hindsight.
At that time however, I did exactly what the voice inside me said. I put on my most winsome smile, looked the bully squarely in the eye and told him what the proffered item was.
In what I thought was perfect Punjabi, I told the bully that it was his mother’s utensil.
In the sweetest voice I could muster, I said, “ Phai Jee, aai twadi Maan da Kooza hai”
I was definitely not prepared for what followed. The bully’s jaw dropped. His eyes glazed over and his face turned a strange color of purple. His started stuttering and flecks of foam appeared around the corners of his mouth. I watched him in dumbstruck immobility even as he let out a very loud scream and pounced at me. I tried to run but it was too late. He gave me the beating of my life.
When I dragged my sore body home, my mother asked me the reason for my bruises and I narrated the incident to her. She also gave me a few well aimed slaps. I did not understand why.
Later that night, as I lay in bed nursing my sores, my father came to my room and, without any preamble, without any words uttered, walloped me some more.
It would take me a few years to understand why. It’s all in the pronunciation.