Saturday, April 28, 2007

Erecting a Language Barrier

Calcutta, India

The man had been following me for two blocks. He was a Hindu Bengali in his mid-20s, dressed in brown trousers and a dirty white button-down long-sleeve shirt. He was carrying a shallow wicker basket in one hand, and he remained exactly one inch from my right shoulder no matter where I walked or how fast I moved.

“I get you good deal,” he said for the umpteenth time. “I know local price. I get you local price. Many markets here.”

He was right about the markets. The farther I walked that afternoon from the main street (officially re-named Nehru Road after India’s first Prime Minister but still referred to by its colonial name of Chowringhee), the narrower and more maze-like the streets became, and the more thoroughly they were devoted to local commerce. The shops on the main street sold new, machine-made clothing and English-language books and other goods that tourists or well-to-do Indians would buy at a fat markup. The high street merchants sold from proper shops, with doorways and display windows and products on shelves ringing a wooden floor, an electric fan clattering above.

The side streets were an earthier affair. Many of the shops were only about six feet wide; many vendors spread their wares on a blanket on the ground. Any spare wall space was used to prop up merchandise. The vendors sold meat, saris, cola, used shirts, candy bars, notebooks, everything. Restaurants – consisting of a man with a skillet and a few plastic tables with chairs – were everywhere. Juice carts crushed fruits into a water and ice mixture; customers drank from glasses which were re-used by hundreds of customers all day. Almost every sign was in Bengali.

“I know the best places,” the man at my shoulder said again. “The best prices.”

He wasn’t threatening, but his persistence had become irritating. Usually, these guys give up after half a block. The fact that I had ignored him didn’t slow him down, probably because I was the only Westerner in sight.

“I know the best price. I get you . . . .” I tried to shut out his banter, but he wasn’t taking No for an answer, and I tried to find a way to dodge him. There was no shopping mall or office building to duck into; my hotel was half a kilometer away. I didn’t see any taxis, probably because people who could afford taxis didn’t come into this part of the neighborhood. How do I get rid of this guy?

Light bulb.

I stopped and quickly turned, looking directly at him and startling him. I said too aggressively:

“Beszel magyarul?” [“Do you speak Hungarian?”]

His eyes narrowed in confusion.

Louder: “Beszel magyarul? Miert ne beszel magyarul?” [“Do you speak Hungarian? Why do you not speak Hungarian?”]

The man tried to regain his salesman composure, but he had been thrown off balance by the volley of arcane Finno-Ugric syllables. “You Germanish?” he asked hesitantly.

“Nem! Miert nem hagyod beken az embert?” [“No! Why can’t you leave a man alone?”]

He began to back away, and I sensed it was time to deliver a coup de grace. I shook my hands in front of my chest and widened my eyes and flared my nostrils and shouted:

“Soha foggat megtalal azt beka!” [“You will never find that frog!”]

He turned and rapidly walked away.

I turned the other way and walked unmolested through the market streets of Calcutta.

Photograph by Anicet

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3:33 AM  
Anonymous Lujza said...

"arcane Finno-Ugric syllables"

It's a good thing he *didn't* speak Hungarian, because not everything you said was completely correct (though most of it was). Where and why did you learn Hungarian? I'm always interested in why foreigners choose to learn my convoluted mother tongue.

2:03 AM  

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