By Pravin Trivedi
Children are not afraid to try anything, including communicating. They have no fear of rejection, being laughed at or misunderstood. Dada, on the other hand, was very concerned of making mistakes, perhaps more so since he was a teacher. He had hardly learned a dozen sentences in Arabic in the nine months he had been there. They were perfect in all grammatical sense. He had them written down, in Gujarati of course. Most of the time he preferred to communicate by pointing and showing.
Ba talked in Gujarati to all the school workers, even to shopkeepers and occasionally picked up some Arabic words in her vocabulary. Overall, she was faster in her broken conversational Arabic than Dada. She had to deal with two servants, Hassa and Ahmed, and the school bus driver, Burai. It was hilarious to watch, but she did not mind our laughing or correcting her. The three locals had to figure out what she wanted from her actions, mixed words, and the tone of her voice. Communication theory was in full swing. As we learnt many years later, this one sentence may describe it well.
I know that you believe you understand what I said but I am not sure that you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.
We siblings were more adventurous. My eldest sister Manju was the most conservative. Kiran tried out anything without fear. I tried to get my point across with whatever it took - words in any language, actions, pictures. Wherever we went, apart from the few Indians who spoke Gujarati, we had to communicate in Arabic.
In India we spoke Gujarati at home. Hindi was spoken in offices and most of the movies and songs were in Hindi. Sanskrit was heard all the time in the temples and at weddings. Coming to Mumbai gave us exposure to Marathi as well. Living in The Sudan however, meant at least a third major language had to be included in our repertoire.
Early one morning, Dada was getting ready for the day. He had some hot water in his shaving mug, and soap and brush to lather for a leisurely shave before having his shower. We really did not have showers since the tap water was so uncomfortably hot. One of my few chores used to be to fill two buckets of water an hour before his shower to cool it down for his use.
Getting ready to shave, Dada realized that his blade was quite dull. We had a small Yemeni shop (run by people from Yemen) next to the school. It was a structure made of clay bricks with a straw and mud roof. They sold anything and everything. The shop owner knew my father well and was hoping to meet the rest of the family after we had settled in. Dada asked Kiran if she would go to there and get him a blade. Ever ready to run errands, she asked Dada how she would ask in Arabic. “Adina Moos,” Dada said. Nothing could be simpler. “Give me a blade.”
Seeing my sister go to the main door made me curious. I knew she would not want me to ruin her solo act. So I followed her slowly to the door, slipped outside and ran after and joined her. She was not too happy to share the task, but glad to have company in case things went wrong.
We both stood politely near the store, in front of his counter dwarfed by all the big containers and bottles containing sweets and candy. We were not that visible to the Yemeni who was digging some peanuts out of a large sack.
“Adina Moos” she said softly. He did not turn around. We waited for a while and realized he may not have heard Kiran.
“Adina Moos” I shouted. That got his attention.
He turned around and saw nobody. He thought the neighborhood kids might have shouted and run away.
“Adina Moos” I shouted again.
Now he came forward and peered over his counter and saw two new kids that came only halfway up to him. He cleverly deduced that we must be the teacher’s family and offered some peanuts. We declined, having been taught not to accept anything from strangers.
He wanted to understand what we wanted. “Naam?” he spoke. In Arabic, that meant “Excuse me?”. In Gujarati it meant “Name?”.
Very politely I said “Pravin”.
There is no ‘P’ sound in Arabic, so he said “Baramil?”
We laughed at this, confusing him further. We did not know it then but baramil meant a barrel in Arabic.
He tried again. “Naam?”. My sister decided to take over and said “Kiran”.
Now he was thoroughly confused. We gave our names a couple of times and then decided that we were getting nowhere. Knowing that Dada was lathered and waiting, we decided to leave. He kept on throwing a barrage of words at us, but we beat a fast retreat and told Dada that we had failed.
On our heels, the Yemeni followed us to our house and asked our father what he wanted. As soon as he saw Dada’s lathered face, he understood at once. Dada asked us to follow the Yemeni back to his shop for the blades then and said it was fine to take the peanuts from him and say “shukran” (or thanks).
That is how we made a friend for as long as we lived there. And, though I was skinny I was always baramil to him.