Until I came to Delhi my interaction with the Rashtrabhasha were limited to 3 types of encounters, as a third language in school between the classes of six and eight , interactions with Rickshaw pullers which was conducted any peculiar pidgin language, and Hindi films.
The third language was a test of memory and was limited to a very rudimentary level of ‘k’ for ‘kaua’ and my spoken Hindi consisted of adding ’hai’ at the end of Bengali sentences.
“Tum kidhar jata hai, kitna bhada leta hai” a language which only the poor labourers from our neighbouring state and fellow Bengalis would understand.
The only Hindi film I had seen before coming to Delhi were ‘ Hathi Mere Sathi ‘and ‘Sholay’. I am sure you remember the iconic dialogues of Sholay. “Kitne aadmi the?” “Kub hai Holi” “suar ke bachhe” . No doubt these would come in handy in certain circumstances but not very useful for day to day conversations.
Although our school had a large proportion of non-Bengali students there was a dictum that only English is to be spoken in school and whenever the rule was broken the vernacular used was street Bengali, which everyone living in Kolkata seems to know.
On my arrival to Delhi things did not improve much as the college I attended was highly Anglicized and students from all over the India attended, making English the only common language. I could practice my broken Hindi only when foraying into the city.
One of the things one needs to know in a new city is how to find public toilets. I learned that in Delhi these were facilities marked DI NA NI in Hindi. Much later I learned that these were the initials of Delhi Nagar Nigam. At that time having no clue I often asked passersby where the nearest DINANI was. Meeting with very puzzled looks I mimed desperate need for relieving myself, something very embarrassing to do in a crowded street, till directions were given.
We usually think in one language and translate in another. Much is lost in translation, and the meaning often changes. Post college, when I joined the productive workforce, it was in the government sector, and the lingua franca was our Rashtrabhasa. Written work was in archaic English, but spoken word remained primarily Hindi, as the staff spoke no other tongue.
I slowly started picking up the lingo, but with many a faux pas. One example strikes the mind. A colleague wanted to borrow my matchbox, those being the unenlightened days when you could smoke at the workplace. I wanted to say that it was lying in my desk drawer, and translated literally as, “ Machis ki dibba drawer ke andar laite hue hai.” I could not understand the uncontrolled amusement that this simple statement evoked, till it was explained that translating back in English it would appear that my matchbox was catching a nap.
I was a faculty member in a training institute in Delhi which catered to our industry, and had to often concede to strident demands that I teach in Hindi. Those classes grew immensely popular not for the content but the language, and caused so much merriment that the institute insisted I switch back to the language of our colonial past.
But the classic double entendre of twisted in translation was done by my roommate, a fellow bong with an even more tenuous hold on the language.
At that time a few of us friends were sharing a flat and had a lady do the cleaning for us, while the more skilled amongst us did the cooking. We wanted to ash the lady, let us call her Kantabai, whether she would cook for us. As most of us left for work early, the job of negotiating the deal fell on Tublu, who left last.
On the fateful day, our friend was in the shower when the lady arrived. So he came out in a towel and started off….
“Er, you know, I say, Kantabai….” And he was stumped as he couldn’t remember the word for cooking in Hindi.
So he improvised, intending to ask if she could take on additional duties. He however framed it as
“Eh… er… I mean…. Aap yo dusra kaam bhi karte hain?”
Legend has that Kantabai giggled and left.
For the Rastrabhasha challenged let me clarify, worded thus, it was an improper proposition. Clad as he was, we were lucky to get away without a harassment charge.