Friday, November 4, 2011

The dissapearing idiom

A few days ago, during lunchtime, a friend of mine used a very old Hindi idiom, in a matter of fact way. Most of the people sharing the table with us, spoke good Hindi, but none grew up with the language. When my friend saw the blank looks on their faces, he explained what the idiom meant. And then, there were smiles -- all around the table.

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But, I have often felt that an idiom is at least worth five hundred. Specially,  if there are no pens to draw, or brushes to paint with.

And that got me thinking. How many of the idioms that I learned in school, do I still remember? And, how many of those do I use on a daily basis? In conversations with the people around me, who would know how to interpret them correctly. Sadly enough, I couldn't think of one!

But then, I did remember, with a smile on my face, the ones that I particularly liked as a child. The ones, that I would remember without the threat of another round of caning, from a big and burly gentleman that used to teach us Hindi. And one particular idiom that I still remember, after all these years, is "Ulte baans Bareilly ko", which, roughly translated, means, "It's like carrying bamboo (cane) back to Bareilly."

Still confused? Well, Bareilly used to be a sleepy little town in Desi-land,  where bamboo was plentiful, and a lot of people used to make a lot of stuff with it. Stuff, that fed many a family, and sent many a kid to college. And, so, if you were sending a bullock cart, full of bamboo to Bareilly, you were really sending it, where it was not in short supply.

I know. I know. Now, you probably remember an English idiom, that you read in your textbooks. An idiom, which means exactly the same. Does "Carrying coal to Newcastle" ring a bell? Just another idiom, for a pointless activity. Since, once upon a time, Newcastle, was the largest coal exporting port. In the empire, that never saw a sunset.

Times -- as they do -- have changed. Although I have never been to Bareilly, I am told that like the rest of India, it has seen a lot of development. New industries are coming to town, roads are being four-laned, and there is talk of an airport in the near future. Connecting the other cities of Desi-land to the land of bamboo. And cane, that my Hindi teacher seemed to be so adept at using. Newcastle, I am told, has long stopped exporting the shiploads of coal that it was known for. Now, you can carry as much bamboo to Bareilly or coal to Newcastle, as you wish. And no one, will raise an eyebrow. Really.

So, as I flipped through the imaginary book of idioms in my head, I came across many, that probably have ceased to be relevant. And, if you use one in conversation, you probably have to explain it to the listener, since times, have changed. As they do.

Most of the other idioms that I remembered, have something to do with animals, that were once popular in the places that I grew up in. Cows, Buffaloes and Camels. Specially Buffaloes, as they have a special place in the hearts of the people, in the heartland. Although, we often refer to the heartland as the "cow-belt", the buffalo still rules the hearts. And there are many idioms connected to the majestic animal -- everyone you come across, can tell you at least one.

Since I remembered Bareilly after a long time, I also remembered a famous Bollywood song from the old days, that mentions its bazaar.  With phrases, that could have become idioms in their own right. As you listen to the words that describe how a beautiful woman lost her earrings in a crowded marketplace, try to spot an animal or two, in the studio mock up of the famous bazaar of the famous town. Will you?


  1. babu,you i think are equally adept in both english and hindi.why don't you treat us with a post that translates hindi idioms to english like the one here? i believe you can pull that off with elan.

  2. You got me thinking. How many do I remember??? Am sure not even a few.

  3. I spent a few years in Bareilly - in fact I finshed my schooling there, and never knew about the cane furniture thing. OF course, in those years, ones interests lie in areas other than furniture.

    Muhavre were not too bad - it was the Lokoktiyan that were the real pain- making a sentence using them tested all ones ingenuity. As for remembering them - I would rather not...

  4. Anon above: Many thanks! I will soon bring in the idioms on-board the peanut express :-)

    Neha: Even if you remember one, you win!

    Sudeep: I am honored to know someone from Bareilly now. My sympathies on the "lokoktiyan", looks like we both survived similar methods of torture...