The Open Dosa

Consuming the Ordinary Differently

Minding My Language

“Asa.” There is.

All evening, I have been saying the word in my head. At my grandparent’s house over dinner, I imagine my grandfather using the word. When I think of him speaking this language, it is him as a child that I see. He is playing football in shortpants that are muddy the way only pants from other generations can be.
“Asa.” Because this language has never been mine, I must wonder if it is rude for children to use this word, I must wonder what he would have said instead, or how the word would have turned lighter or heavier, higher or lower, depending on whom it was said to in conversation. In the image, it is always said to his mother. I let it tumble through the edges of other words that have never been mine.

At the bakery on the way home, Mama says that we should buy bread for breakfast, and I tell her that I will go get it, my hand already pushing the car door open. When I have crossed the street, I glance over my shoulder. Mama is sitting in the car, the windows are up, she is looking at her phone. I look into the bakery and wait for the baker’s wife to appear. I steal one more glance over my shoulder, before I ask, “Pao asa?”

The baker’s wife is wearing blue and white rubber chappals. Her legs, from her knees to her toes, are covered in flour. I think of how there must be a room at the back where the baker’s family pounds the dough with their feet, the same way that wine is made. In Konkani, she asks me how many I want, and I panic for a second, wondering if the word for ‘eight’ is the same in Konkani as it is in Hindi.

“Ahtt,” I tell her. She is already wrapping the bread in newspaper, and we make the exchange. In the car, I keep my parcel on the dashboard. We go home.

I argue with my aunt about going for the lunch. “But they’re all Brazilians,” I tell her, “They’ll all be speaking Portuguese.” “That’s the point,” she tells me, picking a long, striped spaghetti top from my cupboard. “What about this? Wear this.”

It is a Sunday. We go for the lunch, which is at my Portuguese teacher’s house. She is an old lady, with thin red hair, and she comes to the garden gate to usher us in, holding me by my elbow, all the while speaking in a rumbling Portuguese that I can understand. In the house, she introduces us to a group of Brazilian boys, a little older than I am. One is particularly friendly. He introduces himself and I decide that I like his teeth.

I don’t remember what she made that day, but for a week before that lunch she tells me at every class how excited she is that she finally found the right meat. I don’t like the meat, so I eat the potatoes, and try convincing my aunt to take it from me discreetly. She looks at me animatedly, and softly says, “I can’t eat it, either.”

“Gosta da comida?” my Portuguese teacher asks across the dining table. “Sim, gosto,” I think, but I only smile, and she smiles back.

We go to Kala Soudha to watch Beechi House. When you’re sitting in the theatre, you’re very aware of the fact that you’re sitting in a space that has been carved out. We sit towards the back, watch people walk in, watch the fans on one side come to life, watch the fans above us mimic them. The lights begin to dim. Someone in the row in front of me yawns, and three others are set yawning. Two rows ahead, a man turns excitedly to the woman sitting next to him. He says something, but she doesn’t turn. Before the play begins, the director introduces two theatre persons. I think about how I’d be okay if the play never began – I could sit here and watch the people in the audience; I could sit here and think about how I want to climb the staircase outside, against the hill, and find out where it goes.

There is a moment during the production when I laugh at something that was said, and everyone follows. I don’t know what was said. Or why I found it funny. When you don’t know the words, you become aware of other things. Of tones. Of how long it takes before the next punch line is delivered. Of which characters to expect humour from, and which to anticipate irritation because of.
The audience throws its head back and cackles; it remains silent; becomes restless. Like melted gold it falls over the stage, catching characters mid-line, mid-expression, mid-posture, the way it deems fit. Then the audience looks pleased with itself, and leaves you to what it has left for you.

Beechi House is not the first Kannada play I’ve been to. It’s the first that I’ve had to write about, but it’s also the first that I wasn’t anxious about seeing. Sometimes, not knowing is nice; it lets you pay attention without having to be alert; lets you laugh without knowing why you’re laughing.

I learn Hindi for the first time in school. I am only six years old, but I come to my first class already feeling like I have to make up for something. The boys whom I had imparted my paper-boat-making skills to in KG and Prep, are raising their hands in class now, fists grasping for air, and I watch from the same train compartment as they go to a different place. I don’t remember much of those first four years of Hindi, because I quickly grew to like and learn the letters; they sat around me in class and we became friends.

In the fifth standard, I fall in love with our prescribed Hindi grammar book, sharpening pencils and colour pencils every night so that I can draw lines and boxes around opposites and synonyms, given to us in lists. My palms play hot hands with these lists till I am out of breath and able to recite not just every opposite on the page, but those which come before it, those which come five words after; it is equally important to me to know the order the words are in, as it is to know their opposites. Meaning is not lost in this process. For the rest of my school life, when people crib about the invalidity of mugging things, I am left with a nagging feeling that maybe they are wrong – maybe there is just not enough time to learn everything perfectly.

Say “Kakka,” they tell me. I am in college. We are sitting in the English Department during our lunch hour. “Kaka,” I say. They laugh. I laugh. I think about my mother, who hates when I say the word, and how we then dissolve into fits of laughter. They say the word back to me, and I wonder if I really sound like that when I say it; if my head is tilted slightly upward, one shoulder hitched above the other, the second syllable hilariously gentle. “Say it,” they say. “Kaka,” I say, more conscious now. “Kakka,” they chant, “Kakka! Say it!” Their voices come together, become one voice that is growing louder, more hysterical, and this word begins to look like a giant frog croaking itself into a stick insect, and back.

I have had enough. “KAKKA!” I yell once, with all the air in my lungs. In my head I say it three more times, each recitation louder and more angry, for every language that is not mine.


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Zenisha Gonsalves

Editor at The Open Dosa

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