Arre O Sambar: Give me a knife from this state (a.k.a. Tamil kathi kodu)

Posted on November 24, 2005


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NOV 24, 2005 – THERE ARE SOME DELIGHTFUL STORIES behind the origin of Tamil words and phrases. For instance, when Mari, a top fashion model from Paris, came down for a holiday in Chennai, she brought along so many clothes that she had to have a special cupboard built. The locals liked it so much, they asked their carpenters for something similar – à-la-Mari. Then there was this man who was drawing water from the well in his backyard; the rope snapped, and it was attached to the wheel with the grooved rim, which rolled away in the direction of his house. He ran ahead, trying to warn his family to move out of its path, but no one believed him. Ever since, such announcements have been labelled “pulley varudhu kadhai.”

These and other such anecdotes came to mind when I read about the problem NRI parents are facing – trying to convince their children that their mother tongue isn’t English. (It isn’t just Tamil parents that are encountering this problem. One father, formerly from Bangalore, recounted this horrific incident where he was playing with his five-year-old in the laundry room, and the kid asked him if Ottawa was the capital of Kannada. He was so speechless, he was tongue-Tide.) Another father – from Kolkata, but brought up in Chennai – reports that the closest his son came to his mother tongue was when the child shot at his friend Benjamin with a toy gun; when the latter keeled over, he announced, “Ben gaali.”

So NRI parents landing up in Chennai for vacations have begun to pick up bilingual books. These are cleverly constructed to instill in ABCD kids key aspects of their mother tongue, through sights and sounds familiar to them in the US. This is how some Tamil words are explained: What is the condition you get when you go shopping and look at too many things? (“Mall-eye,” which means “evening.”) What’s the acronym for the Northern Illinois Police Department? (“N.I.P.D.,” which means “catch hold of me.”) What were the first words uttered by the software that enabled Computer Aided Design? (“CAD am I,” which means “duty.”) How would a pigeon ask to be made love to? (“Coo, do me,” which means “tuft of hair seen on temple priests.”)

Needless to say, these books are selling like the African country where Chinese mammals suffered weight loss. (“Sudan-a thin panda-m,” which means “hot cakes.”) Run to the nearest bookstore and reserve your copies right away. Otherwise, you’ve been warned – it won’t be pretty twenty years hence when your son comes up and asks if you were really born in the city where people slurp their food in a manner that makes the ghee drip off their lower jaw, i.e. Chin-nei.

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Posted in: Humour