If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world – Ludwig Wittgenstein
There are two languages that I speak fluently (at least, I think I do) – English and my mother tongue, Hmar. I speak enough Hindi to make myself understood in office, and to get around any place where Hindi is understood. To my eternal shame, I don’t speak Meitei, except for a few words that enable me to eat and buy the bare essentials – even though I did my graduation from DM College in Imphal. In my defence I can only say that my roommate was Achet, an Ao Naga from Mokokchung, Nagaland and all the guys I used to hang out with in college were Nagas. Since Achet knew even less Meitei than me we would all converse in English. But, I am ashamed to say that by the time we graduated, Achet had picked up more Meitei than me. I was the only one stuck in something like a time warp – after my more than two years’ stay in Imphal, I never progressed beyond ‘Chak cha bara’ and ‘Si kaya ra?’
I remember an incident when I went looking for eggs to buy. Those were the days when PLA and PREPAK had just started making their presence felt and all shops would close down along with the sun. Since it was already dark all the ‘vai/mayang’ shops had long closed down and the only shop open was a Meitei shop. It was a provision shop also selling fresh vegetables and looked like a shop that would stock eggs. I entered and looked around. Either the shop didn’t sell eggs, or they were kept well out of sight because I could not spot any eggs that would have enabled me to point to them and say in my perfect Meitei, ‘Si kaya ra?’ Since I didn’t know the word for eggs in Meitei, I could not even ask for them. I felt too ashamed to ask ‘Anda lei bara?’ because I was so obviously a local, so I bought a kilo of potatoes and told my roommate that they didn’t have eggs. I later on learned the word for eggs in Meitei, which I have never forgotten. I returned to the shop a few days later and with my newfound knowledge, asked for eggs. They appeared magically from beneath the counter and we could finally make omelets.
Having matriculated from JN Model School, Churachandpur, I could also speak Paite quite fluently by the time we were in Class 10. I still more or less fully understand Paite, but it has been more than 20-25 years since I last used the dialect, and I am now unable to use it like I used to. Like anyone else who has grown up in Churachandpur, I can also understand most of the dialects spoken by the greater ‘Zohnathlak’ community such as Vaiphei, Thado-Kuki, Gangte, etc. Being a Darngawn and having been exposed to Lusei/Mizo, also known as ‘Darngawn-Sâptong’, since childhood, I read, enjoy and fully understand any novel, book, newspaper, or magazine in Mizo. But I find myself tongue-tied and somehow unable (or unwilling?) to actually speak in Lusei/Mizo, even though I have absolutely no problem in understanding the language. Having spent more than three years each in Morocco, Italy and Mozambique, I have also picked up a smattering of French, Italian and Portuguese – enough to at least tell the difference when someone speaks in any of these languages.
There are people who pick up and speak a language within a few months. Because I am most certainly not one of them, I admire and envy this capacity of theirs to absorb and speak a new language within no time. I greatly admire multi-linguists – people who can switch from one language to another with effortless ease. The multi-linguists I have known have all been extroverts, generally above average in intelligence, and good conversationalists. They are usually the talkative type, innately curious by nature and easily make friends. As an introvert and someone who rarely opens his mouth unless absolutely necessary or unavoidable, I suppose whether I am a multi-linguist or not would hardly make any difference!
The best way to really understand and appreciate any culture is to first learn its language. Language is an intrinsic part of culture and is the medium through which all the characteristics, traits and ethos of a people or society find expression. We are usually more inclined to learn the language of a people or society we admire. Which probably explains why most of the drunks during my childhood, especially the really drunk ones, used to speak in gibberish, which was supposed to be ‘English’.
Then there are societies and people like the French who only speak their language and look on other languages with disdain. Things may have changed since August 1989 when I first stepped foot in Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport, Paris, enroute to Morocco as a naïve, newly married young man. The Air India flight touched down in Paris late, as usual, long after most of the airlines had closed their counters. We were supposed to catch a connecting flight the next morning and had been booked into some hotel by Air India. By the time we got down from the plane and collected our baggage, the Air India counter had closed and most of our co-passengers had left.
Stranded and all alone in a strange city with a new wife, apart from it being the first time we were traveling abroad, I roamed around the big terminal looking for some counter or anyone speaking English whom I could ask for assistance in getting to whichever hotel we were booked so we could at least rest for the next few hours. I spoke to a few well-groomed Frenchmen none of whom spoke English, or maybe refused to speak English.
Growing up in a remote corner of India where our exposure to the wider world, especially the West, was through the few English movies that occasionally showed in the one cinema hall in town, or the magazines and newspapers that usually arrived a few days late to the only news agent in town. In those days even just going to the cinema was considered as something only ‘bad’ boys and girls did, and, apart from saving the coins and occasional one rupee notes from our pocket money to be able to afford the Rs. 1.50 ‘middle’ tickets, one went at the risk of being found out. Apart from the ‘middle’ class tickets being basically the only tickets we could afford, there was the question of buying some snacks during the intervals which also cost as much as the tickets. The choice was usually between sitting in the ‘middle’ class and having some chanas during the interval or sitting in the ‘balcony’ seats without any chana. From the perspective and the situation and the time we grew up in, we thought that all Westerners spoke English. Even now, after having lived in non-English speaking countries for several years, it still feels somewhat strange and surreal to find Westerners, especially whites/Europeans, unable to speak English at all.
Perhaps those Frenchmen really did not understand English, but I had the feeling that they fully understood what I was saying. The only reply I received to all my pleas for some information and assistance was in French. The only French I knew at that time was the numbers 1 to 10 and ‘Comment allez-vous?’ which, obviously, were not of much help. Coming from a society where people go out of the way to try and help strangers, the cold and aloof attitude of the French people (at least the ones I met that night) was a real shocker. After going round the terminal a few more times and unable to find anyone speaking English, we ultimately spent the night sleeping in the airport lounge with our suitcases for pillows.
I know that the few people I met that night do not in any way represent Paris or France (they probably were just fellow travelers passing through), but my impression of Paris and its inhabitants remains that of a cold, unwelcoming and pretentious city. We passed through Paris three more times during our three years’ posting in Morocco. But they were only to catch the next flight either to Rabat or to Delhi and we never got to see anything of Paris. Though I can say that we saw the Eiffel Tower, but from a distance, for about five or ten minutes, from the window of the airport shuttle bus that we had to take from Orly to CDG to catch our connecting flight. Also, we did not have to sleep in the terminal the next time we had to spend a night before our next flight. Fully prepared and properly briefed, we managed to find our way to our hotel, which turned out to be the Paris Hilton. I suppose it was some compensation for our last botched overnight stay in Paris – and I can say that I have stayed at the Paris Hilton.
It was also the first time I tried sushi – I still remember the unexpected taste of raw fish on my tongue as I looked around for ways to unobtrusively spit it out. With memories of our somewhat humiliating sleepover in the CDG terminal in mind and finding no suitable way to spit it out without offending others in the restaurant, I somehow managed to swallow it. Though they are not on my list of favorites, I have since eaten more sushi and come to like or at least tolerate the taste. The first time I ate raw jellyfish at a Korean friend’s house in Maputo over dinner, I remembered my first sushi. But having become a little bit wiser to the ways of the world and strange foods, I knew what to expect and even had more helpings as it was prepared with a lot of Korean spices and red chilli powder, which gave it a somewhat kimchi-like appearance, and the raw fish smell was suitably camouflaged by the spices.
The worst food I have tasted has to be the raw oyster (supposed to be good for the libido, according to Italians) at a friend’s New Year party in Milan. The fresh lemon juice that was supposed to hide the extremely strong raw fish smell and taste only seemed to make it worse and I can say with all certainty that it was the first and last time I will ever eat raw oyster again. Whether it did any good to my libido, I don’t know. Those were the days before Viagra and I’m sure quite a few Italians must still be thanking Pfizer.