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Found In Translation

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I landed at Chennai's Kamraj Airport — Chennai, erstwhile Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu State. Heat welcomes me first at the arrivals gate.

The second welcome I receive when I nod at a guy who's holding a placard with my name on it. The guy with the placard nods back. Somebody from Chennai had called me earlier and told me that "Venu" will be waiting for me at the airport. So I stepped closer to the person holding the placard with my name and asked, "Venu?"

I confirmed the name because suddenly I had had this nagging thought, what if there are two 'Atul Sabharwals' arriving in Chennai at the same time? What if this guy is waiting for the other Atul Sabharwal? What if the guy who was actually supposed to pick me up is still writing the placard somewhere in the parking lot?

He nodded again, reaffirming his name. Password accepted. I was relieved. He is Venu. And I am the Atul Sabharwal he is supposed to receive. We both started walking towards the parking area.

"Bag?" he said walking behind me, offering me to handover my bag to him.

"It's okay," I replied and kept walking with my bag on my shoulder.

He overtook and started walking ahead of me, leading me to the car. It was only when he was opening the door to the driver's seat that I noticed his t-shirt. The Indian Cricket Team's official t-shirt. A fake one, of course.

He looked like a typical South Indian — the way they look in the restaurants that serve South Indian food in Bombay or Delhi or the way they look in South Indian movies. I had never been to Chennai before but I had enough visual reference of it from the South Indian movies that were aired on Doordarshan – India's national TV network – with Hindi subtitles. So far the imagery fell in sync with my visual reference – the faces, the dresses, number plates on vehicles.

I kept my bag on the back seat and seated myself in passenger seat, next to Venu. Venu took his place behind the steering. And the drive began.

"Hindi? English?" I asked him, fastening my seat belt.

"Tamid. Madayadam." He replied with a gentle smile and shifted the gear.

In South Indian accents they roll "L"s like "D"s so Tamil becomes Tamid and Malayalam becomes Madayadam.

I wanted to ask him how much time it will take us to reach the shooting location but I know neither Tamil nor Malayalam.

We both sat in silence.

Then, when the silence bored him, he pressed a tiny button on the car stereo. FM radio started playing a Tamil song. A few seconds later, Venu looked at me. I think he did. And then his finger changed the FM channel. An English song started playing.

He was the host so he was being hospitable by playing a song in a language that I understood.

I looked outside the window and saw huge hoardings and posters of Tamil film stars. I was familiar with most of the names, thanks to my childhood Doordarsahn viewings. We drove past a theater that was playing a Tamil film. Colors almost leaped out of giant hand-painted posters.

A Tamil song started coming out of the car speakers again. The poster may have evoked some emotions in Venu and he couldn't stand the English song anymore. I saw his finger changing the channels as I looked away from the giant poster. This time Venu even hummed with the radio. People in South Indian states are crazy about their film stars, especially in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. They build temples to worship their matinee idols, establish fan clubs, and a riot can erupt if you even say a word against their idol. Everybody sees a film at least five times and that, too, in a theater, on a big screen. They like seeing their gods king-size, larger than life.

The location didn't seem to be approaching and I was getting a bit restless. I had work there and the day was just passing. I took a blind chance.

"Location, how far?" I asked.

He looked at me apologetically. "Radio off?" came out from his mouth.

Is that what he thought I'd ask him to do? All this while he'd been thinking that I will tell him to turn off the Tamil song and play the English one. And he thought his fear had come true.

"No, no, no." I defended myself from being seen as a snobbish guest who wants to invade and impose his own tastes and preferences.

His finger stopped just near the button and then the hand went back to the steering.

We are back to square one. Both of us sitting tongue-tied. The Tamil song playing on the radio.

The song ended and the radio jockey said something in Tamil. I was busy looking at the streets. The voice went away and the next song started playing, "Mangalyam."

I know this song. I know this song. My mind screamed. I had heard the Hindi version of the song. It's in the feature film Saathiya – the remake of a Tamil film… the name… the name… the name escaped me.

Then I got it.

I looked at Venu and said, "Alaipayuthey?"

He looked at me and for the first time in those 45 minutes, he smiled. A smile that grew broader as he nodded and said, "Alaipayuthey."

Alaipayuthey, the first word I ever spoke in Tamil. It just became more than a film title.

Alaipayuthey, the word, made two of us communicate, converse, connect.

All this while, I guess, we've been itching to communicate with each other. To have a conversation. All this while we've been trying to guess what's going on in other's mind and making futile attempts — he in his broken English and me by breaking my English trying to sound like him.

And one word successfully opened that lock for both of us.


Password accepted.

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About Atul Sabharwal

  • Well written story!

  • Shopping!

  • As STM says, ‘Beer’ is the universal password for we guys ( although I do not drink any alcoholic drinks and No, its not about my religion)…what password do gals use, I wonder?

  • STM

    I am a school-trained speaker of Australian, which isn’t officially part of the English language.

    Most other English speakers have bizarre-sounding accents, especially Americans whose nasal speaking tones sound like two cats being strangled at the same time. It all makes them very difficult to understand, especially when they speak slowly.

    However, I have found the ideal, universal password when dealing with English speakers.

    “Beer … ”


    This is a great article.

    You are correct that the listener wil take a foreign sound or word and try to relate it to something familiar in the listener’s language.

    I am a school trained Arabic speaker, what I hear when Arabic is spoken is familiar enough to me, although dialect and pronunciation can make it a challenge. It is interesting to find out what words a non-Arabic speaker hears.

    Where I am there are a lot of Indian, Pakistani, and Filipino workers. At lunch they gather and talk, I don’t understand what they are saying but it is interesting to hear all the similarities and differences of the languages they speak.

  • When we hear a language, which we are not very familiar with, we tend to ‘correct’ the sounds that we hear to our own sound range…Prime examples would be how the hindi/bengali “Jai Jagannath'( Hail Lord Jagannath) became “Jaggernaut’ . To an englishman ‘Zindabad’ ( Long live in Urdu) sounds ‘Paindabad’. Then we must also remember that language is never spoken in truest pronunciation by anyone.

    However, the point being made in this article ( as I perceive it) was not the language.

    I speak hindi, was born and brought up in Calcutta( hence speak bengali like a Bengali), love ghazals ( hence can speak and understand Urdu), my grandparents came from Punjab ( hence speak and understand rusty Punjabi) and am writing in English, so I guess I can speak a bit of the Queen’s language. One of my Aunts is a Bengali and another one is a Keralite (Malayali)…the whole point is that we must not use language to make ‘pointedly sharp’ comments, rather look for the overview.

  • The previous comment is made less valid by the inclusion of the phrase “typical North Indian.”

  • Treysi

    This articile is made less valid by the fact that the author thinks that the “L” sounds like a “D” typical North Indian.

  • To Atul:The hall mark of great writer/author is that they write something that everyone feels ” OH that happened to me too!” . Literature is about life around us ..and you bring out the plain trip in a taxi as if I took that trip myself. I can visualise the taxi driver with the tilak on his forehead ( you have not written it, maybe this guy did not have tilak, still I felt he might have). The fur-like cover on the seats ( again my imagination). Great Work Atul. Keep it up. By the way NV is write about the pronunciation.

  • Excellent piece. Reminds me of my year in france when I didn’t speak a word (my wife is fluent and I was there for her.) There was a very kind man that I used to see every week except he spoke French and German, but no English. Every week we tried to speak, but could get no further than monosyllables.

    Still we shared a great love for each other, proving some things go deeper than words.

  • NV

    The driver would have said ‘Tamil’ ending with a ‘za’ sound. not ‘Tamid’. Madayadam?? May be you did not hear it right. No one in TN would prounce it as ‘Madayadam’

  • Great piece. When you live in New York, as I have, or in Jerusalem, as I have, you get used to hearing languages other than your own and trying to make contact across linguistic barriers, as you succeeded in doing.

    Many years ago, I had a girlfriend who had studied French in school and who taken a trip to Montréal from New York. She stopped at a newsstand to practice her French and ask directions. She didn’t know that Quebeckers talk a whole different language that THEY call French but that the rest of the French-peaking world calls Quebeçoise.

    Finally after several minutes of frustrating the newsstand owner, the man looked at her and asked, in Yiddish, “do you speak Yiddish?”

    Yiddish, the language she learned at her mother’s knee, she spoke. All the way to Montréal she had to travel to speak Yiddish!!