Bamboos to Bareily

Bamboos to Bareily

Walking down a crowded bazaar, I once heard a servant in a chicken shop address the owner in this manner, “Huzoor, that cockerel over there is getting naughtier by the day. If you permit me sir, may I transform him into chicken kebabs?” Was I hearing a new idiom? Perhaps.

Idioms are almost impossible to be traced back to their origin and time. They are often punchy one-liners that make a language chat-pata. They wink at you, tease you. In comparison, the proverbs drip with wisdom, they are profound and serious. The word ‘idiom’ stems from Latin ‘Idioma’, meaning language. It flies around the world without passports and visas and adapts itself quickly to a foreign culture and language. For example, in Eastern Pakistan and North India, one would often hear people say, “carrying bamboos to Bareily,” which in UK appears as “carrying coal to Newcastle,” while in Spain it changes to “Llavar Lena al monte,” which means, “carrying firewood to the mountains.”

Among all these Bamboos-to-Bareily versions, the one in German is quite radical; “Eulen nach Greichenland tragen”— “carrying owls to Greece,” because both owls, the wisest of the birds, and philosophers were in plenty in that land.

Sadly, the owl in India never got the status it deserves; three idioms heard often in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh would confirm my accusation. One hears that people join politics only to “straighten their owls,” serve their own interest. They care “two hoots for the common man,” and that they always “make an owl of the aam aadmi.”

Idioms contain folk wisdom. Rarely are they city-born. An exception that comes to my mind was this one, heard in Delhi in the ‘50s; “Gift thay, lift lay” — bribe and thrive. Animals, birds, fruits, vegetables, limbs, numbers and even pure nonsense figure in idioms. Take this one from my school days; I heard it from a class bully who would purloin my geometry box and when asked to give it back, he would wiggle his thumb and shout, “Ti-Li-Li-Li-Jhurr.” I thought he had made it up, but 50 years later, I came across it in a novel titled Dhai Ghar by Sahitya Akademi laureate Giriraj Kishore.

Digital idioms are often short on logic but high on piquancy. Remember Dev Anand’s movie 9-2-11? It means to vamoose. Will someone tell me what these numbers have to do with someone running away! Or a clever, scheming woman being called “56 Knives.” I find no 56-Knive man! But the most baffling one is this old Hindustani, “neither would there be nine-mound oil, nor would Radha dance,” making an excuse for inaction. But why nine mounds of oil?

Ever heard of a potato talking to the farmer? In a German-Austrian idiom, it does. “If you plant me in March” says the aloo, “you are joking with me. If you plant me in April, I’ll grow as I wish. But if you plant me in May, I shall grow one, two or even three.” And still in these countries, here’s a one-liner with earthly humour, “Wenn es nachts in bett kracht. Der bauer seine erben macht,” — If the bed creeks at night, the farmer is surely creating heirs.

China offers truckloads of idioms and a few deserve mention here — “Experience is like a hair comb. You get it when you become bald.” And yet another — “A toothless snake does lot of fu-fu.” If I were to award medals to my favourite idioms, the Bronze will go to this one from Beijing — “Flies never sit on an egg that has no cracks.” The Silver goes to this very old one from Poland for their love for vodka, “When King Augustus drank, the entire Poland got drunk.” And the Gold goes to Africa for this gem in Hausa, “If you see your friend’s beard on fire, pour water on yours.”

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