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Posts Tagged ‘Hindi’

When I asked our new driver where we could buy cheap plants for the apartment, I wasn’t expecting the place we ended up.

We drove into Santacruz, a few miles north of Bandra. Once off the highway and down a long road, we started slowing down.

“Ok, here ma’am,” the driver said.

The side of the road plant market

The houses behind the plant market

I looked out my window as he pulled over and stopped. I hadn’t noticed as we’d been driving, but the entire roadside was lined with plants. Plants up and down as far as the eye could see – trees, bushes, flowering plants, everything . And behind the rows and rows of flowers and trees were small slum houses. It was a jarring sight – colorful luscious plants hiding the homes of the people selling them. And the many sellers were out, watching us emerge from the car.

We immediately got a sales pitch: “What you looking for? What you want? I have good plants, very good trees. Or flower you like? This one tree is 300 rupee,” one seller said, pointing at a large tree.

“Teen-saw rupiya? Neh, neh” I replied, indicating that 300 rupees was too much. In reality 300 rupees is only $6 and change. It’s hard to see a five-foot tall tree for the price of a large ice cream in New York as a bad deal. But you can’t think like that here – if you constantly convert in your head you’ll allow yourself to be overcharged over and over again. You have to bargain for what is fair.

As it’s been with most locals, the seller found even my very very limited Hindi quite surprising. No one expects me to know anything, so the most basic phrases and numbers get me far. I kept walking, with the hopes of now being taken more seriously.

For shopping, this tactic has generally been working for me now that I’ve learned the basic numbers. And once I’ve confused people with my little bits of Hindi, I use a foolproof phrase that makes them like me as well (or at least gets them to laugh at me enough to like me a little bit more than they would normally). I had realized the power of this phrase a few days previously while negotiating with a man selling me bananas.

“Kitna huah?” I’d asked (How much?).
“40 rupees ma’am”
“Chalees rupiya?” He looked at me, surprised that I knew the word in Hindi for 40.
“Yes,” he laughed, “Chalees rupiya. That is the price.”
“Neh, neh.” I said, knowing full well that a dozen bananas should be closer to 20 or 30 rupees. But I knew my white face was stopping him from treating me fairly.

“Kyoo gora tax?” I asked

The banana seller laughed. I had asked him why he gave me a white person tax. He found this very amusing and immediately changed the price. With some price knowledge attached to a bit of humor I could at least escape some of price gauging that came with my race.

So I asked the flower seller the same thing: “Kyoo gora tax?”

Nisha started laughing immediately while the seller just looked at me. He started chuckling, clearly amused. He walked over to his fellow sellers and began to talk animatedly. He was telling them what I said and they all were looking over and smiling. I’d won them over – I was willing to make fun of myself and so now we could begin to bargain with real prices.

potting the plants

We picked out one large tree and four medium flowering plants. After my cajoling and Nisha’s instance, all the plants together were priced at a more realistic 345 rupees. The young boys who’d been watching the negotiations intently were now instructed to begin potting the plants. They sat down on the wet ground, dug up mud, tenderly picked away old dirt from the roots, and placed my new plants in their containers.

I’m not used to slums yet. It’s still hard for me to negotiate with a man when I can see that his house is barely standing and that he has no toilet or running water. But for this time at least I felt like everyone had gotten a fair shake – and perhaps a little amusement.

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“Sahth, sarth and satr?” I asked. “Don’t those all sound very similar?”

“Oh yes,” Nisha replied. “Sometimes I can’t tell sahth and sarth apart. When people speak quickly you don’t know the difference.”

“But doesn’t that confuse people with numbers? You can’t make seven and sixty sound exactly the same. What if I asked how much something was and you said sixty but I thought seven – I might get really excited by how cheap it was!”

Nisha just laughed as she continued to sort mint leaves from their stalk. I was sitting on the counter and she on her stool – we were both drinking our usual cups of chai and she was (attempting) to teach me how to count.

We’d gotten into a good pattern with our learning. She would teach me a few Hindi words a day and I would practice reading with her. It was a good trade. We’d spent the previous part of the morning trying to go over why certain words in English needed an E on the end.

“It sounds like ‘bloo’.” I said.

“But why is there an E? Why isn’t it B L U?”

“I don’t know. It just isn’t”

“How would I know that that word doesn’t sound like bloo-ee?”

I thought about it for a moment. I really am a terrible reading teacher. I’ve gained a new-found respect for primary school educators– how can you possibly explain the English language when it doesn’t make logical sense?

I’d started with packaging. That was the easiest place to find simple words. On this particular day we were reading the label on a box of flour, and the company’s name was ‘Blue Bird’. Nisha knew all the letters from the beginning, so that had made the task easier. But now we just had to try and learn what each one sounded like in the context of a word.

I looked at ‘bird’. Nisha was sounding it out, “Buh…. Ih… rrrr… duh… Byrrduh…Beard…. Bird?”

“yes!” I said.

“yes?” She smiled at me and then looked at Phoebe. She cupped Phoebe’s face in her hands. “Phoebe, that says bird. You can’t tell because you’re a dog.”

We both laughed. Poor Phoebe was used to staring at us – she sat there hoping a morsel of food would come her way, but instead she had to watch as we repeated words over and over again.

But then it had been my turn. And just as quickly as I had been annoyed with how silly English writing was I soon turned on Hindi.

In English, our multiples of ten are simple. Twenty, thirty, fourty, fifty, sixty… It made sense. But in Hindi? Seven and sixty sounded practically the same, but six and sixty don’t even start with the same letter. Why was two ‘do’ and twenty ‘bees’? Why is eight ‘ought’ and eighty ‘asi’? My mind swam with numbers. I just tried reciting.

“Ek, do, teen, char, panch,” I said over and over, counting to five. Nisha chuckled at my pronunciation. Hindi words don’t have hard endings – so while I might say teen with an emphasis on the N, in Hindi it barely registers. At least my pronunciation gives any Hindi speaker listening a good laugh.

And slowly but surely, we’re both coming along. While I can’t pronounce the Hindi words and Nisha can’t understand why English isn’t logical (we had the most trouble with the word ‘onion’. Can anyone explain to me why it is spelled that way?) it’s the small progress that counts. And that’s all anyone can hope for. At least we both have each other to laugh a little bit along the way towards bettering ourselves one day at a time.

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“What are you doing here?” the woman asked me as she openly stared at me. She looked at me from top to bottom — from my white face, to my green and gold kurta, to the waterproof crocs on my feet.

“You mean, in this frame shop?” I responded. I had come to this store to buy frames for the Batik’s we had purchased in Indonesia.

“Nahee, nahee. Here in Bombay. What are you doing here?”

The question wasn’t meant as rude. In fact, I get it quite often because here, I am an oddity. I stand out.  Because of this, it’s perfectly acceptable for people to stare at me as long as they want and to verbalize whatever questions their inquiring minds are bursting to ask.

In India, these questions are normal: Where are you going? What are you doing? Are you here with your husband? Do you HAVE a husband? Where are you living?  Everyone wants to know. And so the solution is very simple –they just ask.

“I live here. I’m living here in Bandra.”
“Ah. Ok.” She then turned her honey colored eyes towards my paintings. “Where are those paintings from?”

Before I could answer, another younger woman decided to pipe up, “Did you paint them? What is this kind of painting? What is this material?

“No,” I responded. “I bought them in Indonesia. It’s wax on cotton and the type of painting is called Batik.”

The women wiggled their heads in affirmation that I had given them the answers they were looking for. Everything was ok now. Their curiosity was satisfied and I was deemed acceptable because I had willingly answered all of their questions, like a good foreigner living here should.

I said thank you to the man who had taken my order (who seemed very glad that I had answered all the questions he had probably been wondering) and went home.

I walked into the apartment and plopped down with a cup of tea, happy that in at least one place I wasn’t strange.  But as I sat reading the paper, the doorbell rang.

I opened the door to an elderly woman in a long colorful sari. She smiled at me.

“Namste,” she said. I replied, “Namaste.” I, of course, didn’t know what to say in Hindi past hello. I made a mental note to ask Nisha how to say, “How can I help you?”

Nisha heard that I was stuck and walked over. She started speaking to the woman in Hindi.  This wasn’t unusual — we’d had people at the door practically ever day. Do you have any papers or cardboard to pick up? Do you need bottled water? Do you want to buy vegetables? Do you need someone to help clean the house?  None of these people ever spoke English, so I was happy Nisha could always politely say “no thank you.”

I listened to the conversation in Hindi, hoping to pick up a few phrases. I, of course, could only really understand the words that were in English. To me, the Hindi conversation sounded like:

“Hindi, hindi, more hindi, lots of hindi, English, a bit more hindi, way more hindi, macaroni, hindi, hindi, concluding hindi.”

The woman said thanks and left.  I turned to Nisha.

“Did you tell her we were English and therefore only ate macaroni?” It was my only guess based on the two words I had known.

She laughed.  “Yes, she was coming here trying to sell vegetable. She wouldn’t hear no, so I told her that you didn’t like Indian food and only ate macaroni every day.”

I couldn’t stop laughing. Here I was, once again, the crazy foreigner.  it’s so funny that to people here, the idea that white people could eat only macaroni all the time seems plausible.

Why wouldn’t we eat macaroni all the time? We look different. We dress different. We speak English in a way that’s hard for people to understand even if they DO speak English.  Why wouldn’t it seem completely normal that we might eat only strange food all the time?  It was a very good excuse that Nisha had created, because now that woman wouldn’t bother us again. So what’s the harm in saying I eat only macaroni?

I am an oddity. And for now, that’s ok.

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I have learned a very important phrase in Hindi, one whose usage can have a grave impact on your wallet. Kitanā?, I can ask. And by saying this in Hindi I can be sure to reduce the cost of any item, even if the cost will still remain in the range of ‘white person price.’ The biggest problem, of course, if that I’m not far enough along in my Hindi to know what the responses to this question mean.

Kitanā, as you may have guessed, means ‘How much?’. In my phrase-a-day approach to learning Hindi, this has been one of the more useful ones. People may get a kick out of me saying ‘Mujhē bhindi achee leh gee’ (I like okra very much) or ‘Tora, tora Hindi bolteh’ (I speak little, little Hindi), but it doesn’t have quite the disarming effect as showing a seller that you’re perhaps a bit wise to their games. Or at least wise enough to have learned the phrase, if not yet the numbers they respond with.

But it’s still, of course, not enough to get a fair price. I think even a lifetime worth of Hindi and the long kurta’s I’ve been wearing wouldn’t get the price as low as if I just looked like I belonged.

Luckily Daniel and I had Nisha along for a day of shopping for household basics, and she had given us strict instructions:

“Don’t let them see us together. Walk in front of me and touch the things you like. I’ll go by a few minutes later and get the real price. Then we can decide if we want to buy.”

Side streets in Crawford Market

We went to the famed Crawford Market in South Bombay. It’s a building, its a neighborhood, it’s a conglomeration of shops and stands and street-hawkers.  Everyone has something to sell no matter the size or shape of their stall or storefront; and every seller is ready to make a deal. It’s a tourist attraction and local haunt that’s known for its cheap wares and myriad inventory.

We started out testing our pricing system with drying racks. I looked at a few and touched on the ones that we liked. We asked how much. It was 1,500 rupee (about $32). We scoffed and walked away.

A few minutes later Nisha came back.  800 rupee was the new price. But when we went back together to pay, the price suddenly increased to 1,250. We knew we’d have to try and get most of what we were looking for at one place – where they’d have too much to lose if we walked away from all the items.

While Nisha was searching for a singular place to purchase, I wandered over to a lighting store to look at standing lamps.

“How much?” I asked.

“4,400 rupees,” the man said, clearly under the impression that $94 for his most basic cheap standing lamp was a reasonable price to offer a gora.

“Nahee, Kitanā?” I asked (“No, how much”).

“Ah. 2,500,” he replied, still ripping me off but with a little bit more realistic intentions.

I walked out shaking my head at my own stupidity for even trying to negotiate in a place where people would never give me a reasonable rate.  And as I walked, lost in thought, I stepped into one of the monsoon’s ubiquitous puddles, splashing mud into my waterproof shoes and covering my legs. I sighed in frustration.

Many, many shops

But a man in a nearby shop shouted my way and pointed at a bucket of water next to him with a ladle. I said “Shukriyaa” in thanks and began pouring the water down my legs. Here was a man who probably would have tried to screw me if I’d come into his store looking to buy something. But he saw me in distress and immediately wanted to help.

It’s funny – the price structure isn’t personal here. It’s not malicious. It’s just everyone trying to make as much as they can off of the small sales they make.  And for every moment that I get exasperated with India, the people here never fail to make me love them an instant later. It’s just the way it is.

Nisha called me in to the shop she had selected and I thanked the man again for his help. I went in and she handed me a pre-written price list with all the items we needed. The owners weren’t going to haggle with me – they knew we’d walk away if they tried to change so many already agreed upon prices. We had found success.

We spent the other portion of our shopping day in the opposite setting to Crawford Market. We pulled up to the Phoenix Mall and went into a store called Big Bazaar, which is like a dingier Bed Bath and Beyond with a grocery store thrown in the back. We picked up the items we couldn’t get at Crawford Market.

Big Bazaar's rice and lentils

But even at a mall that housed a Zara, Marks and Spencers, Burberry and McDonalds under one roof, you couldn’t stereotype it into a completely Western context. Upstairs in Big Bazaar you can go look at saris and kurtas. And when you walk into the grocery section you run smack into big tubs of rice and lentils, surrounded by prospective shoppers putting their hands in to test the quality. The two men in charge just scoop out bags and bags of the staples as customers flock to their most important section.  It’s a comforting piece of an Indian market sitting in a grocery aisle lit by florescent lights and decorated with signs showing happy families in polo shirts and jeans.

When we came back to our apartment, purchases in hand, we felt victory was ours. We’d gotten the basics we needed and we’d added some Indian cookware and flatware to our repertoire. But of course, when we tried to take it all upstairs the elevator had stopped working – and haggling and Hindi couldn’t buy us out of this one. Never a dull moment here – and never a time when we’re allowed to forget that we’re always going to have to try a little bit harder to make it all work.

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I woke up with a start at the sound of something hitting the roof so hard it seemed the ceiling could collapse.  I squinted at the time. It was 6:30am. The sun was just starting to peak out from behind the buildings – but it was covered by a full heavy sheet of rain, the source of the pounding. No thunder or lightning accompanied it. The volume of the rain itself made enough sound to wake me, and it seemed like there was no chance it was waning anytime soon.   With that in mind, I got out of bed and began to get ready for the day.

It was meant to be a full day of apartment finishings – the gas needed to be connected, furniture assembled, internet installed, cable dish secured to the roof and curtains hung. I groggily got up, preparing myself for the day ahead, and went into the bathroom. 

Our lovely broken toilet

For all the steps forward we would have that day, I was about to get one severe step back: As soon as I sat on the toilet I heard a crack. A moment later my left side gave out and I was tumbling sideways. The toilet had cracked off the wall and water was spilling out.

I stood there, watching and marveling at the distinctly poor engineering and installation that must have occurred for my small frame to have broken this large instrument. I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. Of COURSE the toilet fell off the wall. In our brand new gleaming apartment we still couldn’t escape something breaking even as we were already working to get other things fixed.

The water soon stopped spilling and I stopped laughing.  I pulled myself together because the day needed to move forward. Nisha arrived and was soon managing all the various workers who had come over. At the same time she was washing and preparing vegetables.

She was like my own personal godsend – translating everything into Hindi and back, constantly asking if I was hungry and giving Phoebe a pat every time she walked by. How did I ever manage without this woman?  I loved the smell our apartment took on as she unraveled a cilantro-esque herb from its twine wrapping.  And I loved hearing her firm voice with every worker who she felt wasn’t doing their job properly. She was looking out for me and I truly needed the help. My earlier discomfort was being replaced with sincere appreciation for her presence.

She asked later if we could call her old employer – the woman wanted to speak with Daniel and I to make sure WE were good enough for Nisha. We gladly obliged and got further confirmation that we’d struck a pot of lucky by finding our new member of the family.

Throughout the day she and I watched over the goings-on in the apartment while we chatted about life and homes and our pasts. The only English that would trip her up were idioms, like when I mentioned, “I stick out like a sore thumb” or “that toy of Phoebe’s has seen better days.”   She would look at me with a blank expression and I knew I was failing her. I caught myself later as I used the phrase “good cop, bad cop,” and realized I would really need to be more cognizant of this if I didn’t want to suddenly sound like I was speaking gibberish.

I still felt pangs of my initial guilt. As I took an orange out of the refrigerator to peel Nisha came over and said “give it to me.” I thought maybe she needed it for something else but as I stood there I watched as she started peeling it for me.

“You don’t have to peel my orange for me,” I said, trying to still sound nice and appreciative while getting the point across. It didn’t work.

“Don’t be silly” she said, with a finality that made me think I shouldn’t fight her on it.

Phoebe waiting for all the work to be done!

“Ok. Shukriya,” I said, meaning thank you. I’d asked her to teach me one Hindi phrase ever day and that had been her first.  My phrase of this day was “Chai penge,” or, “Do you want tea?” She laughed at my pronunciations but I was glad to be learning.  And I used that original phrase over and over to every person who was helping complete all the tasks that had to be done throughout the day – gas was connected. Tv mounted on the wall. Furniture assembled.  Progress!

Nisha left at 7pm after having cooked a meal of roti and bindi (also known as flatbreads that she made from scratch and an okra based vegetable dish).  I waited for Daniel to come home before eating. We both took bites and looked at each other – it was amazing. Sorry to every cook in the south whose okra I’ve ever loved, but THIS was certainly an okra revelation.

The toilet in our room still remained in pieces on the floor. But I couldn’t seem to think of that while bindi and roti sat on my plate. The morning’s small step back was dwarfed by the meal in front of me and the thought of all the day’s steps forward.

Revalatory okra

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