My father often mimics my horrified expression of sheer dismay, emotional pain and cultivated snobbery, playing out my disdain as a convent student, years ago, when he thundered in simple, precise words that we three sisters needed to learn and perfect conversational Punjabi. Schooled in a strict convent in Lucknow, where speaking in Hindi, even during recess, was equivalent to committing hara-kiri as the effective espionage reported exact coordinates to our grey-eyed Irish principal, this diktat from Papa Bear was tough to digest, forget follow. Nevertheless, I mustered my beggarly enthusiasm and decided to conform, more to win brownie points. I am glad I did. That was the point when I began conversing with my grandparents in halting Punjabi.
It was fun, with the boisterous expanse of the language bringing in hilarious rejoinders and pronunciation gaffes. I began eavesdropping, snooping and sleuthing, swallowing bits and bobs of pure Punjabi-laced conversations between my mother and grandmother, phone conversations on the ‘landline’ in the lobby of our rambling home; feigning sleep as they gossiped and gargled in local innuendo, discussed the travails of the house help, and advised each other on matters concerning the family tree. Then there were garrulous spurts of oaths and expletives that regaled the air during family gatherings, weddings and other functions when people got sloshed and blubbered like oafs over jokes while tearing into tandoori chicken, butter chicken and butter naan with sound effects.
I was delighted to discover Punjabi worked as a wonderful code lingo when I began to travel beyond India in the 1990s. I could exchange opinions on, and about, strangers, incognito, communicate with remarkable ease with my NRI uncles and aunts and contribute suitable emotions through typical phrases when immigrant tales were shared by relatives falling out of the woodwork. Soon, my status was elevated from amateur to a much-revered pro, in my generation, who mostly stumbles and fumbles while speaking the community mother tongue. The moment of crowning glory arrived when I was able to fluently and spontaneously burst into tappas at a much-awaited wedding in the family a few years ago.
Shilpi Madan for DailyO