How multilingualism takes you places (faster)

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A short short story of an 'auto-kaaran' who drove his passenger and his point home

You travel faster when your autorickshaw driver can regale you with a multicultural pot pourri of stories. It's another thing that you wish you didn't. | Flickr / Chandrashekhar Basumatary

Bargaining with autorickshaw drivers is a familiar ritual in this city. As familiar as blowing at the foam in your filter coffee. There is a meter conspicuously displayed but never used. You mention your destination. The game of cat and mouse begins. He names twice the going price, you name half, and finally you arrive at the acceptable median.

That’s how it went the other day, when I saw a couple of auto men lounging around, smoking beedis while sitting on the pavement by their vehicles. I offered fifty; the first guy said a hundred and fifty. My counter-offer was a generous hundred. He insisted on a hundred and twenty. "Even hundred is a lot," I said, with an air of finality. "Let’s go."

After he’d reached the main road, he gestured in the direction of the language school from which I’d emerged. "You learn German?"

"Yes."

"Vee gaitts?"

"What?" I said, parsing the sounds in Tamil.

"Wie gehts?" he repeated, slower and clearer.

"Oh, you’re talking German!" I laughed embarrassedly. "Where did you learn that?"

"I have interest, sir." He looked at me through the rear-view mirror, pleased at having surprised me. "I used to have a customer from Germany." He motored on, bullying a cyclist off his path and weaving between two cars before he stopped at a red signal. "How many years you have been learning?"

"Oh, two or three years," I said, non-committal, scenting danger. (By danger I mean a conversation.)

"Oh, so you are very advanced. German is a very tough language, sir."

"Well, everything’s tough at the beginning, but it gets better as you learn—"

"No, no, very tough, sir. But Italian, French, Español, quite easy. Italian grazie, Español gracias. Both languages are more or less same, sir."

"Yes, I suppose it’s like Tamil and Malayalam," I offered.

"No, sir, not even that much. Tamil, Madurai Tamil. That’s all the difference."

He careened past the foot of a flyover, taking the road at ground level at the last minute. I had my heart in my mouth. His linguistic commentary was threatening to send me (and perhaps himself) to the Emergency Ward. Yet somehow it felt extremely rude to discourage the conversation. I felt impelled to participate.

"Where do you pick up all these phrases?" I asked.

"Customers, sir. The other day I had a customer from Sweden. I told him to teach me how to say Good Morning in Sweden Language. After some days another Swedish man sat in my auto. I told him God Morgon, and he was shocked. Auto driver speaking English, okay, people can imagine that, but Swedish, French, Italian? Asanthu poyidaraanga. They’re astonished."

The auto whirred ahead like a dodgem, its front wheel jerking this way and that. "It’s all about making the customer feel happy, sir." He stopped to shout exuberantly at a motorcyclist who overtook us from the left, leaving me in no doubt as to his proficiency in Madras Tamil. "I want to entertain my passengers. Otherwise what’s the point? Get in, sit quietly, get from one place to the other." Seeing some space ahead of him, he accelerated until he was right behind a large truck which said ‘Mera Bharat Mahaan’. "See, sir, Hindi also I have learnt a fair bit. Just by seeing films. Mushkil means difficult… pyaar means love… these politicians don’t want us to progress, sir. They stop us from learning other languages, while they send their family members abroad for education. My neighbour’s son went to Calcutta, sir. I know Bengali also. Ami tomake bhalobashi."

He continued to wax eloquent about various languages, talking of Mandarin and Cantonese, Bahasa and Thai. I sent up a silent prayer when I saw I’d reached home in one piece.

He flashed a smile at me. "Merci beaucop, sir."

I opened my wallet, gave him a hundred and twenty without so much as a murmur, and watched him roar down the street.

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