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Our Babel and oral drift


Picture credit: Jayanth Eranki


It is only about a kilometer from New Delhi Railway Station to where we need to go but the young cycle rickshaw chap is being very persistent on a humid August day, so we accept his services. It helps his case that my companion is not a particularly enthusiastic walker.  Where we need to go is the infamous hotel strip nearby called Arakshan Road.  I tell the rickshaw-man so and he asks me if I know the way.  I tell him I do, and express surprise that he does not.  It seems terribly unlikely that he hasn't ferried customers the short distance (ideally suited to a cycle rickshaw ride or a walk) from the railway station to as popular a traveler destination as Arakshan road.


So we weave our way between traffic, do loops around one-ways and I guide him to turn left at the head of Arakshan road, just as we pass below a prominent blue Delhi road sign that says "Arakshan Road" in both English and Hindi, which he takes absolutely no notice of. He abruptly stops pushing at pedal, swings around on the saddle and informs me, sounding slightly offended, that he does, of course, know this street - but that we have the name wrong.  It isn't "Arakshan" road he tells us, emphatically, but is AA-RA-KHAASAA road.  So I nod and say, "yes, yes, whatever, maybe we didn't remember it right" and we get off, pay and part ways.


When proper nouns are recorded and transmitted solely orally, as the only way they are in our deeply literacy deficient, yet multi-tongued, society, in different accents and with ears conditioned differently, they are subject to unrestrained morphing.  As we speculate about the etymology of this one - it comes to me thus.  Arakshan road is Delhi's "backpacker central".  A lot (really a lot) of backpackers come in search of it everyday to find a low-priced, "value" hotel to stay while they explore Delhi.  And it is terribly convenient for CP, the railway station and almost anywhere else, via the Metro.  So they stumble out, with their outsize back packs, disoriented by their journey, into the glare (or gloom, as the case may be on a winter day) of Delhi clutching the Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or whatever the trendy traveler tome of the day is, and read out, haltingly, in unaccustomed accents, at the growing mob of cycle rickshaw men, "Aa-rak-haas-aan road?". "Yes, yes, of course", and there is a flurry of grabbing and jostling out of which one rickshaw-wallah emerges as the chosen one to ferry the guests - mentally registering the name of the popular hotel street as Aarakhaasaa(n) road, for posterity.  And to confound the rest of us, another day.


Chennai is home to the classic, double place-name migration of course, by which Hamilton Bridge became Haamilton Bridge, then hit the oral drift current and traversed Aamilton > Aambilton > Aambittan > Ambattan and then popped back into English as Barber - Ambattan (Tam.) = Barber (Eng.) - leading the current Barber's Bridge.


And then this case of simple unidirectional migration that we just heard about - St. Andrews Pet to Chintadripet, again from Chennai; go fill in the blanks.  Tamil with its reduced consonant set lends itself to interesting word migrations, that us southies are familiar with. 'Kanti' was the towering, non-violent revolutionary of India's freedom movement and 'Gani' is the sweet food that bees make from nectar.  Baroda is the layered, maida-based flat bread and not the city of the Gaekwads. And there are many more.  We all have our favorites.


In many parts of the south, an 'Egyptian' is a trade fair.  In Varanasi I could not find a bus to Robertsgunj - but could to Raapatganj.  And in Delhi it was hard to locate (back in the day when they were common) a post box - but just round the corner was a 'posht baaksh'.  In some parts of America 'war' is what you drink to quench your thirst and 'terrorists' are people who tend to click a lot of pictures and wander around with sunglasses, sun hats and guide books; both of these could lead to interesting word drift in oral India. In Kottayam, Kerala my wife looked very hard for blue Persian 'crows' on the resplendent and baroque altar of an ancient Syrian orthodox church even as the guide kept pointing at the most widely recognized symbol of Christianity, at the center.  A little later the same day we kept waiting for the 'Jaagli' bus to go someplace until an observant shopkeeper wrote 'Jacquelin' on a piece of paper and thrust it into our hands.  We had the literacy of Kerala to thank.


Without the 'lock in' of the written or read word - oral drift tends to result in words soaring afar & making unexpected leaps of language and imagination, like the Barber.


One last, that you may have read about from a report on the Bhutan Lit Fest this year (no idea if true):  an English lady of yore leans out of her window (in Bengal, we presume) and yells, 'push cart, push cart' to the snack vendor as he goes by on her street.  Others passesby on the street volunteer pursuit, shouting 'puch-ka, puch-ka'.  And the snack man's snack finds a name.