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August 11, 2000

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Inglish Tinglish, Tamlish, Hinglish... What, man?

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Kamla Bhatt

"Sister, one whisky please."

"One cool beer."

"Madam, wine, madam!"

Many of the passengers wanted to slake their thirst and were pleading with the harried stewardess to put them out of their misery. Perhaps, it will provide them with much needed liquid courage to brave the four-hour trip to Madras. We were still on land -- at the Changi Airport tarmac waiting to get clearance from the air tower.

I was sitting squished in seat 33F on Singapore Airlines flight number 410 to Madras, now known as Chennai. (Sounds like the artist formerly known as Prince who is rumored to have switched his name from a Celtic Glyph to his original name). About 16 hours ago, I had left behind the land of Digital El Dorado with its "Awright, I will ping you next week when I am in San Francisco for the IPO of our ASP."

"Cool, see ya next week then. Take it easy."

Sitting on the last leg of the flight I knew I was in home territory. Well, almost. Suddenly, I heard the unmistakable sound of English as we speak it -uh, kinda spoke like it like a few light years ago. Each light year is equivalent to one American month. I was leaving behind the land of Singlish (Singapore) with its "What lah, why you not coming to my home now, lah?" "Kisau what!" (kiasu means loser).

I was going home for "hols" the usual three weeks or 21 days. But, when you consider the logistics and factor in the jetlag, recovering from the inevitable "Delhi belly," (excepting this came from drinking the wonderfully contaminated water of Madras) it boils down to about 10 days or 240 hours crammed. This further boils down to about 140 hours that are filled with frentic shopping for Kanchivaram sarees, latest smart cut lucknawi chikenwork salwar kameez, books, tapes, and the last minute frenzy to get sambhar poodi, masala, mithai, murukku and idli pathram. Also try and get some stuff from your "negative place" somewhere in the distant hills of Kumaon . Also crammed into these measly 150 hours are visits to co-brothers, co-sisters, co-sister's co-sister, cousin sister, buajis etc scattered across the country.

After the 4 hours of riotous air ride that seemed more like a moffusil bus ride we landed in Madras.

"Sorry, sister don't mistake me, ah!" the man said elbowing me out of the way at the Madras international airport baggage carousel. I was torn between laughing and making a rude retort. But, in the end I burst out laughing! The man looked back at me in a bemused fashion and simply shook his head and said, "Velinatu! (foreign country)".

I quickly collected my luggage and hoped that the teeming crowd would part like the Red Sea as it did for Moses and I could breeze down to the main door. No such luck. Instead I repeatedly muttered a string of "Excuse mes!" in a rising crescendo with very passing moment and was assured in return that it was "No problem."

"Coming from America, ah?" enquired the customs officer. I mutely nodded my head and escaped to meet my brother and co-sister and co-brother (another Indian term).

We quickly navigated the cart piled high with luggage to the car and the driver jumped out of the car and said, "Madam, I do it. I do it." I politely said, "No, no, I will manage." This was because like many who live in the "Land of the free and the home of the brave," I had gotten used to bravely and freely (don't have to pay a porter) hauling my luggage, loading and unloading it from conveyor belts, cars, buses, you name it. But then, my co-brother intervened and said, "Let me take care of it" I stepped away and got into the car.

We all piled inside the car and headed home. Suddenly I heard the driver ask, "Left turn at cutting sir?" And my brother responded, "Nahi, nahi, right." I again burst out laughing at this interchange. "Cutting" in Madras refers to an intersection and the driver wanted to know if he should make a left at the intersection.

Phone calls. They can be wildly entertaining when you lapse into the American way of answering the phone. "Yellow," I sang into the phone. "Yellow, wa. Who is this?" For a moment I was taken aback before making an appropriate response. When he heard that my brother was not at home, the caller requested, "Can you please tell him to revert back to me?" "Sure, I will ask him to get back to you," I answered. "No, no, madam, simply ask him to phone me when he comes back to the house," the caller requested.

Like many who go to India for "hols" I paid my customary visit to the tailor to get those exquisitely stitched Indian outfits. I got into the car and asked the driver if he knew the way to the tailor.

"Yes Madam," he responded. "Next to the poli tation." It took me a nanosecond before the light bulb went off in my head.

"Police station," I silently told myself.

We drove past colorful billboards restaurants and a coffee-pub. Coffee-pub?? Wait a minute, I thought a pub served drinks not remotely connected with coffee.

At the tailors, Master (as many tailors are referred to and am still trying to figure out why) asked, "Fleats for the fants, Madam?" "No pleats for the pants, just straight cut," I responded.

"Buff sleeve for the blouse, madam?

"No puff sleeves, simple long sleeves," I again responded. Suddenly the lights and fan went out and the room was plunged into darkness. "Temprawary power cut, madam," I heard the Master say in a resigned fashion.

Having taken care of the shopping I thought I would flit down to Bangalore for 36 hours to visit my sister and co-brother. In the 'City of Gardens' which now more resembles a 'City of Smog', like Los Angeles, I read about the "self-suicide" committed by a young man while I shared a "two-by-one coffee" (one order split into two) with my sister. I also managed to pay a quick visit to my brother's co-brother who happened to live in a swank new apartment complex.

"Wait, madam," I heard a female voice call out as I hurried into the apartment complex. "What is your good name? Who you want to see, madam?"

I mentioned my brother's co-brother's name and was politely instructed to wait while she picked up the phone and announced, "Pande sir, Kamla madam to see you."

"Whokay, madam. please go." Apparently she got the go-ahead from sir.

"Thanks, " I murmured as I walked past her.

"Mention not, Madam," she sang out behind me.

"Sorry for the lafda, yaar," my host said as I stepped out of the lift. After exchanging preliminary greetings, he enquired, "Will you have coffe-shofee, chai-wai?" I declined the coffee and the tea and instead said, "I'll have a glass of pani-shani."

After the visit as I made my way out to the car, I thought for the hundredth time, why can't we have the British equivalent of the Hobson-Johnson dictionary for 21st century India? Maybe it can be titled the Iyer-Pande or the Pande-Pillai or Laloo-Pillai dictionary. The dictionary will be useful for those of us who happen to visit desh once in a blue moon and help us undersantd why "saara desh Josh mein hai!."

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