Thursday, July 9, 2009

'Nandri' To All And Sundry

(Published: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

We’re in a ferryboat, floating somewhere in the middle of Pondicherry lake, enjoying lunch. Today, we’re part of the one-day tour organized by the PTDC that covers all the tourist attractions in and around Pondiherry. It’s a contrast to the wanderer mode we usually stick to. Lunch is traditional fare- rice, sabzi, delicious curries, mango pickle, garnished buttermilk and papad. Mmmm.
Most of the others in the group are foreigners. We get to hear a lot of French. A friend of mine tries his French with an elderly lady who seems to be traveling alone and gets a confused look in response. As it turns out, she’s German. I use my H.S.C. German skills and rattle off the one German sentence I’m comfortable with. “Ich kann nicht gut Deutsche sprachen” (‘I cannot speak German well.’) I say to her. She nods in agreement. We notice a younger woman looking at us intently. In slow, elaborate and histrionics assisted English- so she would understand us- we ask her what language she speaks. “English” she replies. Aah!
A group of girls from Chennai is part of the crowd. When we try and ask the waiter for some water and he only stares back at us with blank incomprehension, one of the girls becomes translator and helps us out. The water arrives and I ask her what the word for ‘Thank you’ is in Tamil. “Nandri” she answers. “Ok, nandri then!” I say to her.

“Nandri” becomes our catch phrase. We use it in every place and at every occasion that we can. We say “Nandri” to the waiter. We say “Nandri” to the tour organizer. Our guide thinks “Get out” is the most natural way of asking your passengers to alight the bus at the end of the tour. Nevertheless, we say “Nandri” to him too.
It ignites sudden warmth from the shopkeepers. It elicits a surprised smile from every person we stop to ask directions. The several bus conductors we encounter throughout our trip seem justly repaid for all the help they offer, by the simple utterance of a simple word in their own tongue. In Karaikal, our enthusiastic and self-appointed guide, writes down four foolscap sheets worth of Tamil words and their meanings for us to learn. ‘Azhagaana Pen’ means ‘beautiful woman’. “Azhagaana Pen.” “Azhagaana Pen.” We keep repeating to help us remember, as we head toward the bakery for some refreshments. We unwittingly pass a lady selling fruits, who swivels around angrily, with the impression that we’re acting funny. ‘Azhagaana Pen’ is a dangerous line. We stick to ‘Nandri’.
The Chennai Mail leaves at 10:50 p.m. We’re in Chennai by quarter to four in the afternoon. I call up my publisher and we decide to meet. The autos outside Chennai station look like they’re given a fresh coat of paint every morning, instead of the mundane wash that would suffice anywhere else in India. They shine as brightly yellow as the Chennai sun itself. “Gemini flyover”, we say. “150 rupees”, he says. Nandri but no nandri. We eventually get there after one chap settles for 120. We meet my publisher at the Landmark bookstore and then head for some cold coffee. “You know Madhu, nobody in all of Tamilnadu probably said ‘nandri’ more than the four of us did the last few days”, I tell him. “Probably right”, he says. “Everybody in Tamilnadu these days only says ‘Thank you’.

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