The year was 1975. St Joseph’s Convent, Bangalore. It was lunch time in the nursery school where I studied. I was all of four years old. Each teacher sat on the grass in the school lawns in their designated place. A group of five or six children were seated in a semi-circle in front of each teacher. Before each child was an open lunch box and a spoon. Sequentially, the teacher would feed each child a spoonful from their lunch boxes and ensure that each child had their meal. We knew we couldn’t fuss over food in school.
My mother had sent me a meal of fish curry and rice that afternoon. Those were days when there were no rules banning non-vegetarian food in schools. Suddenly in the middle of this daily ritual, I began to cough forcefully. “Oh! She’s choked over a fish bone!”, said Mrs Aseervatham, my graceful class teacher. And she hurriedly fed me a morsel of dry white rice minus the gravy. It was a surefire remedy to remove the tiny obstacle in my throat. I was fine two minutes later.
I came back home that evening and narrated the whole day’s happenings to my parents. “But Daddy,” I asked my father, “Why did my teacher say fish ‘bone’? Shouldn’t she have said ‘thorn’?” My zoologist father was amused, and he launched into a complete description of fish bones. But thinking back, it was my first lesson in why one should not think in another language and speak in another. In my mind, I had literally translated the Hindi, “kaanta” into English.
It is a common problem with those of us who are not native English speakers. How often do we have to remind ourselves that we don’t have to ‘tie’ a saree (saree bandhna) but wear one? That we don’t ‘drive’ bicycles (cycle chalana) but ‘ride’ them. I was once accosted by a gentleman in Philadelphia because I said “I’m nervous because I have to take a lecture this afternoon” (Lecture lena hai in Hindi). “Teachers give lectures”, he said. “Students attend or take lectures. You Indians are amusing!”, he said.
The problem transcends languages. I once found my mother guffawing because she heard our Maharashtrian neighbour say “Baarish gir raha hai“. That literally translates into “rain is falling” in Hindi. It should be “Baarish ho rahi hai”. But I don’t blame the poor lady who translated “Paaus padat aahe” from Marathi into Hindi in her head. But her next statement “Thandi baj rahi hai” (It is ringing/playing cold!) was enough to send my Mom into another fit of giggles. That was a literal translation of ‘Thandi vajat aahe‘ from Marathi.
In medicine, such situations can turn hilarious during doctor-patient communication. One oft-repeated anecdote here is of a student from the North-East who had to elicit a history of worm infestation in a child from his father. Struggling with Marathi, the poor guy finally asked “Janaawar padte kaa” (Does he pass animals?!) leaving the father baffled!