Wednesday, September 01, 2004

"Even Buffalos Don’t Drink Water In This Season"

(Pothungoodi vellam kuddikyatha kalamanne)

Malayalam is the first language I learned to speak, and over the years, I have discovered the richness in its expression, both profane and profound… sometimes even confounding, hard to beat.

If, I like something better than a punch-line in Malayalam, it is a Malayalam punch-line translated into English. An appropriately-flavoured translation could easily fuel an entire evening’s worth of conversation. A true translation had to be tart and trite just as its original in Malayalam.

Over the years, I have come across some choice phrases like – I am here to shave buffalos (what’s with Mallus and their buffalos, anyway); or the more extreme... I will have your funeral feast (Ninnde pulisseri kazzikyum).

Or the one in the title… That one was a favourite of a high school teacher of mine. Sir Raghunathan used that when we asked to be excused to have a drink of water, especially during the rains. Raghunathan, a native of Kerala, taught math and science in a school in suburban Bombay, and he spiced his language with the choicest of Malayalam phrases. Of course, you had to know the language fairly well to comprehend what he was talking about, and the full impact was lost on most of my classmates. But, the Mallus in class, and we were a few, had quite a laugh.

There was the classic -- "Don't hand me the stick to give you a beating."
(Vadi kodutthu adi vangikyade)

Then there was -- Don’t get into the gun and shoot, ah!"
(Tokkil keri vedi vekyadde)

That was directed at Vijay, was one of the poor sods conscripted by his parents for extra tuitions with Sir R. Vijay had recognized one of the questions on a test as one he had managed a sneak peak at while they were being formulated at Sir R’s table. He was just about to share his rare and prescient observation with his dullard mate in the backbenches when Sir R’s voice boomed across the room. Needless to say, Vijay made no further moves towards the trigger.

There was one comment reserved for the more inconsistent and distracted ones among us. “You are either on the master’s chest or in the courtyard outside.”

That one got my vote as the uber-profound phrases of all time. For the Mallus who didn’t recognize that one. It’s… “Onnugil Aashan-de nenjattu, alyangil Kalari-de purathu.

Christ! Trust Sir R to make math class a cultural experience!