If you’re in Bombay, yet unaware of its colourful patois, you’ve no right to call yourself a Bombayite....” aptly observed the poet and professor Nissim Ezekiel in now defunct The Quest.
Recently I received a hilarious mail: “Eighty four things not to do in Mumbai.” A person who’s new to Mumbai must follow all the eighty four pieces of advice. Newcomers must never call a cop Pandu, a BEST bus driver Bablia and a Maharashtrian guy Bhaiya, no matter how respectful one means. Mumbai has its own peculiar lingo, which is an odd mixture of words from Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Parsi and a swag of other tongues. In terms of language, Mumbai is truly a cosmopolitan city and no other city in India can hold a candle to it on this count. Where else will one hear ‘cutting’ chai (for half a glass of tea), kulti marna (leaving for the day), O, bhidu (a term of endearment for a friend), gayela, khayela and so on, popularised by Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi in a film like Munnabhai MBBS?
Once I was passing through Bhendi Bazar. I stopped at a shop to pick up old Urdu magazines. Accustomed to hearing aap, janaab throughout my life, when I began to bargain about the price, the shop-keeper told me, “Bhai sahab, tum ko bolela hai, ekach keemat...” (I’ve told you, price is fixed). It was a bolt from the blue! I almost fainted and forgot to buy books from that gentleman and fled, lest I died of hearing a few more such gems of linguistic distortion, sorry innovation. I wondered, what would be the reaction of uber-sensitive Hindi and Urdu speakers of Lucknow, Rampur and Bahraich.
If one wants to write a paper on the lingo of Mumai, one must travel by the local trains for a week. One will have a life-time experience. Nikal patli gali se, ae hat, hawa aane de, kidhar ku jayenga, khaali-peeli (seriously, its origin should be a matter of doctoral research!) are a few examples to rattle the sensibilities of a newcomer to the city. You’ll never know that Sandas (toilet) road station on harbour line is actually Sandhurst road! People have forgotten the Englishman Sir Sandhurst and relegated him to a toilet term! I’ve never come across a greater and more appropriate example of falling from the grace than this one. Long ago, a Sandhurst (the famous Military Academy in the UK) passed out Indian General wrote in The Illustrated Weekly, requesting the Bombay Municipal Authority to change the name of Sandhurst. He found it terribly insulting to his alma mater! And you can get an instant University degree in abuses if you inadvertently get on the nerves of a Koli woman (fisher-woman) on a suburban train. Truck-drivers can come to Mumbai for a crash course in the choicest cuss words from Koli women. The abuses can put warm molten lead into your ears and you can even go to meet your maker if you're an ultra-sensitive soul.
I used to get quite worked up when somebody called me tu or tum. But the spirit of Bombay is so overwhelming that soon you get used to its typical linguistic jargon and start talking a la Bombaite. I remember, once I was having tea at Churchgate. It was an Iranian joint. Soon a friend of mine joined. He ordered for bread and tea. Maska maar ke? The waiter asked us. The owner then intervened and asked whether he meant bread-butter. Maska is a Persian word for butter. But the way it’s pronounced in Bambaiyya style, it sounds something else. By the way, meska is a woman’s derriere in Turkish. And when I realised that it was an Iranian joint, I began to converse with the owner in Persian. Though he spoke fractured Persian, it was enough to gladden his soul and he didn't charge anything. In Bombay’s famed Asiatic Society, there’s an old Urdu book Shahar-e-Bambai se vaabasta chand qisse" (some anecdotes related to Bombay) by Adil Suhail Dariabadi. Reading that book, I came to know that Ghalib never visited Bombay as his friend and biographer Altaf Hussain Hali Panipati warned him against it. “You’ll forget your Urdu, let alone Poetry,” cautioned Hali, who wrote Yadgaar-e-Ghalib, the most authentic biography of Ghalib. Hali once came to Bombay and took a solemn vow never to set his foot again. “I got nightmares during my stay in Bombay. No one spoke Urdu. Everyone abused. I fell sick.” The vivid as well as livid description was enough to scare Asadullah Khan Ghalib not to travel to Bombay.
Yet, Sahir, Majrooh, Kaifi and Shakeel wrote their best poetry in Bombay. This magnificent city has always been a place where people come to try their luck. The mega city is forever in a flux. And where there're so many activities and so much agility, a language cannot thrive, or for that matter any language can ever enrich itself. Leisure is a must to prosper a language. And there is no leisure in Bombay. I’ve seen the length and breadth of the city and searched for a place like Hazratganj in Lucknow and Nazish lane in old Lahore, but never found any such spot. Too much materialism blunts the finer aspects of life. But we can’t blame anyone or anything for this decline. Didn't we ask for it?