Krishna Shastri Devulapalli | The Language of Love

When people from diverse linguistic backgrounds need to communicate with each other, they will find ways

I had the pleasure of witnessing a migrant's triumph-of-will story some years ago. Read on, it’s a story that proves love needs no language.

Years ago, when we lived in a colony in suburban Chennai, our next-door neighbour was a rather large woman (fat-shamer police need to hold on for a bit because the woman’s big-bonedness is germane to the story). She was into chanting, serpent worship and an indigenous variety of voodoo that involved putting camphor and goat blood into split lemons and leaving them outside the doorsteps of errant neighbours who would then suddenly take ill.

Rumour had it that she could cast spells. And it was on account of these occult powers that a senior bank official who had been less than courteous to her had suddenly lost his ability to count and was now working as a security guard at the same bank’s ATM.

As our abodes were separated by nothing but a flimsy compound wall, I made it a point to give the woman a box of sweets at least once a month, claiming that it was my great-uncle’s upanayanam or my cook’s graduation day. I didn’t see the point in turning from unemployed artist/writer into a one-armed soan papdi vendor with a speech impediment overnight.

Suffice it to say no one in the neighbourhood dared mess with her.

At least that was the scenario till a Telugu family — fresh from Gudivada, completely unaware of her formidable rep — rented the house right across hers. (The family didn’t find anything amiss that their rent was about half the going rate in the colony.)

A narrow street separated the gates of the Telugu family and Black Magic Woman.

Every morning, humming old Telugu songs, the new entrant ritually washed her tiny yard with perhaps a little more water than required. And every morning the water ran off her yard, flowed across the narrow road and pooled in front of the much-feared neighbour's house.

When a couple of stern warnings in racy Tamil were met with silence from the Telugu woman — but with no change whatsoever in her washing ritual — the Tamil woman decided to take the fight to the next level.

Her opening gambit was the time-tested lemon-camphor-goat-blood ploy. Every morning, as soon as the Telugu woman woke up, she would find this terrifying omen at her door. And completely unfazed, the small-made, mild-mannered newcomer would casually kick the lemon out of the way with seemingly no damage to limb or faculty, and go about her daily ritual of singing and watering.

Frustrated that the underworld wasn’t coming to her aid any more, one day, the Tamil woman decided to deal with matters in a more conventional manner.

Standing ankle-deep in muddy water, her sari hitched, the woman let out a string of expletives that would make a Tamil sailor faint. She also told the Telugu woman — who didn't understand a word but got the drift — that she would unleash the dark forces on her family.

When the Telugu woman remained befuddlingly impassive, somewhat tired with all the screaming, the large woman finally ended her protracted rant with a definitive “Po-di, naaye!”

(Translation: Buzz off, you canine!)

The timid-looking Telugu woman, who didn't know any Tamil, tapped her chin as if making a calculation and responded finally with a gentle, matter-of-fact “Po-di, yaane.”

(Translation: Buzz off, you pachyderm.)

To me (watching the proceedings through a narrow crack in the curtains), it looked like the Telugu woman had just reversed the consonants in “naaye” keeping the vowels as is. She had just used an anagram.

The neighbourhood terror, with her ability to summon the forces of the netherworld at will, who had been ruling over our colony unchallenged, burst into tears and ran away into her house.

The following week, the Telugu woman and the Tamil woman became bffs, and everyone in the colony lived happily ever after. I was told recently that the former’s daughter is marrying the latter’s son and will be moving to San Jose.

Moral of the story: There is no need for imposition of any kind of common language in this great country of ours. When people from diverse linguistic backgrounds need to communicate with each other, they will find ways.

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