Once upon a time, thirteen years ago, itty-bitty Sensei was dropped head-first into Pakistan, and therefore, into Urdu. Having previously had an Urdu vocabulary of ZERO, she learned Urdu through what some people would call the ‘immersion method.’ I would call it ‘sink or swim,’ and I would also say that years later, I’m barely keeping my head above the waters of total illiteracy. I’m reminded of my Urdu handicap every time I come and visit the Khandaan and am verbally one-upped by nine-year olds. Take this conversation, for example, which originally occurred in Urdu.
Niece: Do you speak Urdu?
Sensei: (I’m answering in Urdu here folks.) What do you think?
Niece: (grins) Can you READ Urdu?
Sensei: A little.
Niece: (handing me a children’s story book) Here, read me this.
Sensei: (squinting at page one) Umm…
Niece: I thought you could read?
Sensei: I thought I could too, what’s this funny looking letter here?
Niece: That’s a ‘seen’ (letter “s”), they’ve just stretched it out to make it look pretty. You’re a grown-up and you can’t read my book?
Sensei: Well, you know Urdu isn’t my first language.
Niece: (calling other children) Hey you guys! Phupoo can’t read Nonehal! (name of children’s magazine)
Sensei: Well, errr…
Nephew: (in disbelief) You can’t even read Nonehal?
Niece: And she’s a grown-up too! Ha ha! Even Saad can read Nonehal, and he’s six!
(the crowd of children grows. I sigh and pull out a copy of The Professor, by Bronte, which I had been reading)
Sensei: (opening page of book) Here kiddo, can you read?
Sensei: Read this.
Niece: (taking book and sounding out letters) Madame, jay vooz preee, hey I can’t read this, it’s nonsense! What is this?
Sensei: You mean you can’t read French? Even Aniraz Phupoo can read French! Ha ha! Hey Aniraz Phupoo, she can’t even read French!
(the children are duly shamed, so we call it a truce and go play badminton in the back yard)
The fact that my nieces and nephews can’t read French doesn’t excuse me from not being able to read Urdu at a literate level, but it sure it useful. If harassed about my lack of language skills, I can always break out in my preschool French, or into the lyrics of the Russian song ‘Katusha.’ But this only works on children, and thankfully the adults are very gracious about my lame Urdu. So gracious in fact, that they didn’t want to hurt my feelings by correcting me, so for three years, they let me say that I had hide (khaal) instead of skin (jild). They also let me reverse the words for ‘invent’ and ‘prevent.’ I’m still not sure which one is ijaad and which one is ‘nijaad’ so I’m just going to keep my mouth shut here.
I also mixed up the words 1.‘marham’ and 2.‘marammat,’ which meant that I spoke of cars receiving ointment (1.) and certain wounds being repaired (2.). I reduced a shopkeeper to tears once when I tried to ask him for a dozen white beads (motian), and by a twist of the tongue, asked him for a dozen white fat women instead (moTian). I corrected myself right away, but it was too late. The damage was already done. The tears were already running down his face. And I never did get my fat women…errr…beads.
I’ve been reading the Urdu newspaper lately in an attempt to bring my vocabulary up, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate reading material. New words and phrases I have learned this week have been to condemn (muzammat karma), reaction/consequence (radde-amal), to express heartfelt sympathy (dilli afsos ka Izhar karma), extremism (intiha pasandi), and United Nations (Aqwami Mutahidda). So now my brain is full of political jargon that I don’t know how to use. I can just imagine:
Cousin: Oh no, the pakoras have burnt!
Sensei: Main is garam tail ki sakht muzammat karti houn aur aap ki pakoray ki jalnay ki dilli afsos ka Izhar karti houn. Aqwami Mutahidda ko is baat ki itila honai chaihiyay! (I strongly condemn this hot oil and express my heartfelt concern over the burning of your pakoras. The United Nations should be notified of this!)