Of funk-sticks, rastiadu cases and body parts

The dictionary of Sri Lankan English is proving to be an entertaining read so far. Since my move to Delhi, I’ve noticed that there are certain words in my vocabulary which puzzle my friends. I once sent a text to The Dancer and she called me in a few minutes, slightly perplexed – “Err. I got your message but I have no idea what you just said”. I went through the message and realized that the inclusion of ‘men’ tagged at the end of my text had left her confused. Tagging ‘men’ at the end of sentences (in retrospect it’s a very ‘aunty’ thing to do – how are you, men? Yeah, men etc) was something that I’d grown up hearing and had imbibed into my vocabulary without a second thought. I’ve had to take two steps back and analyse elements of my vocabulary and certain figures of speech, ever since I moved here.

While reading, I recognized phrases that I hear from friends, family, old colleagues and which I sometimes use (damn sin, hi-bye friend) and it was interesting to note certain colloquial terms which I’d actually taken for granted as a part of British English. Our Sri Lankan English is this wonderful pickle of Burgher, Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim sub-varieties, interspersed with a handful of Indian words, spectacular disregard for tenses and a cheerful appropriation of British English. The recent surge in Sri Lankan youtube videos like this take advantage of these idiosyncrasies and are usually exaggerated versions of SLE.

Here are a few which I’d marked while browsing the dictionary.

Aeli maeli;  Ambarenafy; Am I right?; And all; And go; Back side; Bada pissa; Bakala; Still batting; bayagulla; Big big; Bioscope; Body parts; Boru shok; Bugger (coll), chandiya, Come or go, Chicago; cool spot; cracked; cussed (apparently less common in British English);

Damn shame; damn sin; damn wild; damn cheek; not a dog; dot-dot; expensive (aloof, standoffish); fine (maara); gal (stern, hostile); geetic (flashy, tastless); giddify; glass maker’s daughter (someone who stands in front of you and blocks your view); gobbaya; gonbaas; good name; hi-bye friend; how if..; kichbichify; komala; kunju; kusukusufy;

Land side; last minute case; latapata; machang; maini; maru; Who and who; what and what; in vain; too much; small small; a rastiadu case, patta, patas!,

Admittedly, I groan every time I hear someone say something like “Oh, it’s in the backside” but I’ve always found the doubling of words (small small, dot dot, big big) and signboards advertising ‘body parts’ amusing.  I also noticed certain words which have been dropped along the way but which you’re likely to hear the older generation use. My grandmother, for instance, refers to stoles as ‘mufflers’ and watches as ‘wristlets’ – something you’re not likely to hear too often these days. I suddenly started reminiscing about the school-slang that we picked up during our early teens. No one spoke Sinhala in my household and I went through a phase where I would use words like ‘kindy’ (you can’t see me, but I’m cringing as I type this. I haven’t heard anyone use this word in years), ‘ela’ and ‘goday’ (another cringe) to the amusement of my parents.

I now know the difference between ‘machchan’ and ‘machang’ and was delighted that ‘love cake’ had earned itself an entry in the dictionary. On a completely unrelated note, I think love cake is one of Sri Lanka’s best kept secrets. None of my Indian friends had heard of it before and are now staunch fans. I’m currently on a one woman mission to force feed love cake to everyone who hasn’t had it. Please join me in this worthy cause. The world needs more love cake.

There were also words I hadn’t come across before. Never knew that ‘the Boys’ referred to members of the LTTE or that the ragging ritual I’d heard my mum talk of was called ‘bucketing’. Also, ‘box along’  (carry on),  ‘cockered’ (drunk); ‘cowcatcher’, ‘double orphan’, ‘forward Peter’ (a cheeky person), ‘hot drinks’ (alcoholic), kadavule, kuppi class and funk stick (such a fantastic word. Must use it more often) among others.

Indian English is replete with its own variations. I’ve heard ‘healthy’ being used as a (rather politically correct but deceiving) synonym for ‘fat’ – Ex: My brother is a very healthy person. A ‘bath’ refers to what we Sri Lankans would call a ‘bodywash’ and ‘trishaw’ is ‘auto rickshaw’. Sentences are sometimes prefixed with a ‘Tell me one thing’ or ‘Do one thing’ and the phrases ‘what all’ and ‘who all’ are the Indian answers to the Sri Lankan ‘what and what’ and ‘who and who’. There’s an overuse of words like ‘actually’, ‘only’, ‘also’ and ‘obviously’ and I first heard words such as ‘prepone’ and timepass only after I moved here. It doesn’t fall into the label of Indian English but I do love the Indian ‘Uff’ – it stops short at being a swear word and it’s nicer than the ‘Arey yaaar’. I also heard someone being described as a ‘cutlet’ and have been dying to call someone that now.

I liked that there was effort made to explain the deviations from British English and the inclusion of illustrations here and there in the dictionary. The boundaries between Sri Lankan English and Sinhala and Tamil words are a bit blurred (a point which Meyler has addressed in the introduction) and the examples from Sri Lankan books could have been reduced a little, but that’s just me nit-picking.  The dictionary itself is considerably comprehensive – props to Michael Meyler and the editors. It’s been around for a while and I’m picking it up 5 years too late but do put a look (do you see what I did there?) if you’re interested in this sort of thing. Here are some links as well, because I’m generous like that.

 

Airport Observations

I hang up my phone in amusement. My ride was still at home, in a half-sleep stupor but awake enough to brush away my insistence to take a cab. I didn’t mind hanging around for a while. The arrival section of the airport is a lovely place to people watch and I’m usually in such a hurry to leave that I pay little attention to my surroundings. I settle down in a corner, with my luggage at my feet and a book on my lap so that I don’t feel too awkward.

The duration of the flight is visible on some passenger’s faces as they make their way past me. The long haul flyers have pained looks on their faces as they lug around their screaming children and attempt to balance hand luggage, infant, headache and trolley. Too tired to muster a thank you to the cleaning lady who helps them with the trolley, they don’t walk; instead they flop with fatigue towards the luggage belt.

I spot pockets of women wearing abayas but minus their head scarves. My curiosity is piqued. This is rare. The abaya is always, always accompanied by some form of head covering. I suddenly realize that the Middle Eastern flights must have landed and these must be housemaids (or Domestic Help, for the politically correct) returning home. Having landed in Katunayake, they had clearly discarded  the head covering which is compulsory for women in the Middle East.

There are certain staple characters at every airport and as I sat there, I spot a few.  There is the Frequent Flyer. Usually a business man/woman, impeccably attired – not too casual, not too formal – completely at home in the airport, equipped with a enviable mastery of being able to stuff a week’s worth of clothes and necessities in a smart, medium sized travel bag (usually a Samsonite).  I say, enviable because I’m usually the Overweight Passenger (luggage weight, not body weight. I feel it necessary to clarify this) who resolutely attempts to get the poker faced flight official to wave the few excess kilos away. I’m not proud of it but I’ve reluctantly come to terms  with the fact that I will never be able to travel light.

Then there is the Well Dressed Woman. You know the kind. The WDW is a rare species which steps in and out of the flight flawlessly attired, lipstick immaculate and hair in place. While the rest of the populace attempt to smoothen their plane hair (twice removed cousin of helmet hair) and crumpled clothes, she breezes through the airport in 6 inch heels effortlessly without a single trace of the flight visible on her demeanour.

There is the foreigner who has arrived to ‘find herself’ and immerse herself in the Exotic Orient. Harem pants, beads, tattered backpack and a Lonely Planet guide are key indicators. There is also the Elderly Traveller with a perpetual look of bewilderment, determinedly clutching onto their baggage and passport lest someone runs away with it. Every flight is a new adventure and the ET is usually the only person who pays close attention to the emergency rules announcement at the beginning of a flight.

There is always a tourist in every airport. The Tourist travels in packs or clusters of 5 or less. The more obvious Tourist is usually found with a fanny pack and sports shoes. The clusters are loud groups which congregate at the airport, cracking jokes among their peers, crumpled printed itineraries stored in their bag.

I hear someone call my name and I look up in surprise. There’s a face looking down at me expectantly and I find myself in a SSM (Small Social Pickle). I know I know this person but I can’t remember how or where I know him from or what his name is. One of the things which strike me as I struggle to place him is that he has a kind, sympathetic face and I experience a strange déjà vu  feeling of having this thought before, when I first met him years ago.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” Clearly I’m more transparent than I realize. He remembers my name and so I’m forced to lie to save face. Of course, I do, I reply. He’s nice enough not to call my bluff and after some cursory small talk, he leaves and I return to pretending to read.

The Duty Free heavy weights are making their way. A mother-son pair emerges from the lift. The mother is beaming and there is a proud (but not in an arrogant way) tilt in the son’s chin as he pushes a fridge on a trolley. A gift for his mother maybe? As I sit there, the flight crew of various airlines pass by frequently. I keep a lookout for familiar faces – a few friends work in the industry– but don’t spot any. There was a time when the travel perks of being a part of an airline had a strange fascination for me (and seemed worth the toil and flak I’ve seen cabin crew put up with). I was much younger and the attraction of a new country every week was extremely alluring.

There’s a man hunting for a pen to fill out the declaration forms for his brand new LED TV. He’s approached four people by now and the frustration on his face is apparent. He’s yet to ask me, strangely. I’m afraid my Alone Face is also my Leave Me Alone Face – a Delhi survival mechanism I have unconsciously adopted – and I probably don’t look very inviting or pen-friendly. I take out a pen from my backpack and signal him over. His furrowed face breaks out into a grin and he heads over to the other side of the lounge to fill out the paperwork.

My phone rings. My ride is here.  I’ve only read 6 pages of my book. As I clumsily get my belongings together, I realize that I’m exhausted. The frantic dash during a brief transit was finally taking its toll.   It feels good to be back. I wish I remembered that guy’s name though.

Author-Artist Double Acts


One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. While growing up, Andersen’s stories unnerved me. Very few of them had positive closure and at times highly ambiguous (Ugly Duckling, anyone?) and for a little girl who liked utopian, apple-pie endings where everyone lived happily ever after, Andersen’s stories usually left me sad. The Little Mermaid dies, the girl with the red shoes dies, the matchstick girl dies, the fir tree dies, the emperor in the Emperor and Nightingale, also dies – do you see where I’m going here?

But then I received a beautifully illustrated copy of Andersen’s stories from my mum’s friend which slightly altered my attitude to Andersen. It was the books I read as a kid which paved my gradual interest in art and soon I started taking note of various illustrators as well.

I know most people agree that Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl were the quintessential writer-illustrator duo but I could never reconcile myself to Blake’s scrawls and always felt that it detracted from Dahl’s genius instead of complementing it. I’m aware that I’m a minority here because Blake has been hailed as one of England’s foremost illustrators and the Dahl-Blake combo has been described as a perfect example of author-artist chemistry. But I always felt disappointed to see my favourite characters reduced to almost careless squiggles, with large dots for eyes and overlarge hands. I get the feeling that Blake was trying to balance a fine line between both caricatures and sketches but it never worked for me.

Two double acts I really enjoyed were Jacqueline Wilson-Nick Sharratt and C.S. Lewis-Pauline Baynes.

Wilson was a staple in my adolescent reading and Sharratt’s simple line drawings went just right with Wilson’s writing which was catered mainly to girls aged 11 – 16. Obviously, I went through a Sharratt phase where I tried (unsuccessfully) to model my drawings according to his. Sharratt had an excellent eye for just the right amount of detail – a print on a dress, an extra fluff on a cloud, markings on leaves – which I really liked.


  

Bayne’s simple sketches brought to life characters I’d never even heard of before.  Detailed illustrations of battles, Mr. Tumnus, Aslan and the Pevensies were beautifully bought to life – but done in a way which didn’t impinge on the reader’s imagination and their own versions of the scenes and the characters. I loved the Narnia Maps and later read that Pauline occasionally illustrated for Tolkien as well. The Telegraph has an obituary on her, I think she sounds fascinating.

But, my (insert superlative of choice) favourite was my Hans Christian Andersen book. The book is filled with beautifully intricate, whimsical, old school illustrations which you’d be hard pressed to find amidst the sea of mediocre illustrated children’s books these days which look positively kitsch in comparison. Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone (they were an illustrating duo) and the author were centuries apart but the obvious chemistry between the artists and Andersen’s stories pervades the book. I think the illustration eclipsed the stories at times, because I would pore over the drawings and make my own stories with spectacular disregard for authorial intent. The pictures really don’t do justice to the drawings. I would love to get my hands on a copy of their illustrations of the Grimms Fairytales – the Grimms Brothers are dearer to me and this combination would have been electric.


Despite my fondness for illustrated books, I’ve never actually warmed to comics and graphic novels. The lines between comic s and graphic novels have always been slightly blurred for me. I grew up on a steady diet of Garfield, TinTin, Asterix and Calvin and Hobbes but my die-hard graphic novel fan-friends scoff at me and tell me that these don’t count/aren’t enough. From what I see, the crux of graphic novels are basically comics – But with fancier packaging, marginally deeper story lines and a lot heavier on the purse. Yes? No?

I remember my dad presenting me with comic versions of Oliver Twist and Kidnapped years back. I looked  at the too-bright colours of the comic strips, the dialogue watered down to a handful of words peppered with exclamation marks with all my 13 year old contempt, wondering sadly when words ceased to be enough.

I like art and I like reading but I’ve always felt that graphic novels tended to compromise on the literature aspect instead of synthesising words and art. When classics are condensed into 50 page graphic novels, the nuances in the language and the detail are also watered down. I haven’t written away the genre completely though, so there might be hope for me yet.

This started off as an elegy to my beautiful Andersen book and to Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone but as you can see, I got a little carried away. Chemistry between an author and an illustrator is a beautiful thing. Do add in your favourite author-artist combos if you have any. If you’d like to browse more book illustrations, this site has some nice stuff http://www.booksillustrated.com/

 

Trishaw Evolution

The thing with three-wheelers in Delhi is that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. With green and yellow exteriors and plain interiors and sometimes a picture of their respective deity/religious leader or Salman Khan wedged between the frame of the three-wheeler and the tarpaulin, there’s very little distinguish one three wheeler from the other. Even the drivers are supposed to wear a standard uniform so there’s little room for individuality. This fantastic realization dawned on me a year or so ago when Indian A left her phone in a tuk-tuk and we had to do a mad dash around Central Delhi trying to find the right three-wheeler.

I’m not sure how it is in the rest of India but compared to Delhi, their Sri Lankan counterparts are definitely more personalized and have more character. Maybe it’s the lack of the fourth wheel and complete disregard for road rules, but for the longest time, I found it hard to take tuk-tuks as a serious form of transport but I’ve watched how the Lankan three-wheeler has come of age gradually and it’s pretty interesting.

Most drivers I’ve spoken to have their own three-wheelers while some of them are rented and a certain amount paid regularly to the owner. I’ve seen three-wheeler drivers back at home look after their vehicles with meticulous care and how at times, their vehicles are even an extension or representation of themselves (Ex: Bad ass tuk-tuk = heavily tattooed driver + super loud engine + heavy beats) Till a few years back, most three-wheelers were sparse and unembellished. Sometimes, there would be an androgynous baby poster on the inner sides or a token landscape poster with a random quote (home is where the heart is, smile and the world will smile with you, etc) but that was basically it.

It may have begun with the introduction of a stereo at the back (which took up almost all the storage space and gave way to after-hour three-wheeler parties on the side of the road) and more three-wheelers in varying colours. Snazzier interiors replaced the usual ones. The bars, handles or whatchamacallits were gradually revamped. Fancy, metallic work or padded frames replaced the plain frames, a light inside for the convenience of the passenger was introduced along with more storage space and bottle holders (for the driver).

Dashboards are now decorated with enthusiasm. There’s a curious tendency for flowers and plastic grapes dangling distractingly.

Or you know, hello kitty bobble heads.

Some tuk-tuks even come with skylights.

Sometimes, Bob Marley chills in three-wheelers

With leery babies and their austere mothers.

 

St. Fallen posted a picture yesterday of a trishaw with two fans – one for the driver and one for the passenger. How’s that for service?

Wearing your religion on your sleeve is another distinct feature of Sri Lankan three-wheelers.  Religious symbols are predominant while figurines, garlands and statues adorn the dashboard. If you hail a tuk early enough, you might see the traces of the morning incense and flowers strewn on the dashboard as well.  Sometimes, Buddhist and Quran verses are on the exterior or a short prayer asking to bless the respective vehicle.

And of course, the trishaw wisdom. Megs has done a fantastic job documenting quotes and general pearls of profoundness three wheelers in Sri Lanka dispense. Some of them are pure gold. I’ve popped in a few but I’d advise you to check the full collection out over here on Pinterest. (All pictures of trishaw quotes via Megs’ Pinterest page)

Living in SL, it was something I took for granted and it wasn’t until I noticed the homogeneity of the Delhi wheelers that I realized how Lankan three wheelers have morphed over the years. My favourite features would be the dashboard decorations and the quotes. I’m not sure about the functional aspects and engine enhancements, but if they’re jazzing up the rims I’m going to guess that they’ve made internal improvements as well, along the road.

It’ll be interesting to see what would be added on in the future. I’ve seen wheelers being used to advertise stuff and it’s only a matter of time before some genius decided to harness its full potential and go all out in a commercial frenzy like the buses of Colombo have been subjected to. Which although an eye sore, it would mean an additional source of income for the drivers and extra money is always welcome.

I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for trishaw-art or a Sri Lankan version of the London Underground (but instead of the subway, the tuk-tuk) with Sinhala and Tamil poetry. Not sure how feasible poetry would be as a mass communication tool but hey, this is just wishful thinking.

Notes from Delhi: Summer Stupor

To you,

Most people I’ve met in India are products of many places. There’s an enviable fluidity between cities over here. You’re born in one city, sometimes school in another, go to college somewhere else and maybe settle wherever your work takes you. Back in Sri Lanka, all roads almost always seem to end up in Colombo.

P wrote this nice piece of prose about home both as an abstract concept and a physical space. Where is home for you? Is it a place, a state of mind? Is it where your roots are or is home, where a special person is? Is it perhaps the people you surround yourself with? Or are you one of those people who belong wherever they go?

Summer has come and how. This heat saps any semblance of energy out of you. My day begins only at dusk. The morning and afternoon are passed in a wilted summer trance. The only good thing about this horrible season is that the Ehala (they’re also called the Golden Shower Tree – isn’t that a lovely name?) and Araliya trees have bloomed and brighten up the city.

I had draped myself on the swing this evening futilely trying to decipher my notes and break out of the indolent stupor which had enveloped me the entire day when I happened to notice a cobweb on the swing. I’m averse to spiders, but partial to cobwebs. Framed against the light, every intricate detail was visible in the setting sun. The stage was set for one of those profound moments (a sunset, a moonrise in the distance, a cobweb- you know the kind.) I thought I felt an epiphany coming on but it turned out to be a sneeze.

– Me

Words

I realized it was time to retire the notebook when the back cover came apart a month or two ago. It had followed me wherever I went and the wear and tear that age brings was visible on its shabby pages.

I started maintaining it while I was in school. It was something that I had started on a whim and I was surprised to find that, years later I still kept at it.  It began as a way of adding new words into my limited vocabulary but soon grew into something less impersonal. Every time I came across a new word or a word which piqued my interest, it would secure a place in the notebook.

Gradually old words I had forgotten about made its way into the pages. Words for rainy days, words I wouldn’t use now but might need later (filigree, disingenuous, bilious), volatile words, jagged words, hostile words (‘pogrom’ makes me shudder every time), mutated words, sensuous words, over used words, words that have the power to break hearts, tired clichés – they’re all crammed in there somewhere between lines of teenage doggerel and hurriedly scrawled shopping lists.

Two whole pages were devoted to colours (Prussian blue, burnt umber, carmine, cosmic latte, radical red and tangerine. Aren’t these lovely?) Phrases from songs, lines of poetry and interesting word-pairings which occurred to me or which I’d encounter in my reading were also immortalized in my little yellow notebook (Casual aplomb, repositories of dreams, sandalwood days, inheritance of loss. My favourite so far is lecherous octopus. Not very poetic, but apt on occasion) Marriages between words interested me. Sometimes the most unexpected of unions sound so right.

Internalizing new words into your vocabulary isn’t always easy. We usually fumble for familiarity and words need to grow on you, it isn’t something you can force upon yourself. When I was younger I would pepper my conversation with ‘big’ words. Why? Maybe I wanted to exude an air of intelligence, maybe I wanted to impress people. I don’t know. Thankfully I’m more prudent now. Use your words wisely, children.


(I know some of these are fairly obvious ones but every now and then, I’d come across a word in an entirely new light and would pop it into my notebook)

I have a new notebook now. I look forward to filling it.