A soapy saga

I was posted at an Air Force station in the northeast. That day, all the grocery shops in the station were closed. At about the gloaming hour of the day, it hit me that I was short of a bathing soap. Spotting the lone tea-stall right opposite the gate, I scurried out.

There were a couple of benches in front of the stall with a handful of men, mostly labourers, seated on them. I heard some of them chatting in Bengali and some others in Assamese, both of which were all Greek to me. A fish out of water, I meekly approached the shopkeeper and asked, "Snaan karne ke liye soap hai kya?" (Is a bathing soap available?) in my broken Hindi. "Hain, hain, baith jao thodi der," (Yes, available; be seated for a while), he replied, pointing to the benches.

I parked myself at one end of a bench. A few minutes later, he offered me a cup of hot tea of his own accord spieling about the tea powder on sale with him, though I kept totally mum. I paid for the cuppa telling him willy-nilly I relished it and reminded him of the soap I had asked for. He gave me a small paper-packet.

Accepting it quietly, I enquired, "Kya yeh soap hai?" (Is this soap?). "Haan, haan ye sau(n)ph hee hai" (Yes, this is nothing but sau(n)ph), he asserted receiving the pittance I paid for it. A curious rattle of the packet close to my ears raised a doubt about its contents. Thinking that the bathing soap may, perhaps, be in a powder-form in that region, I shoved it into my pocket and returned to the room.

With the unopened purchase in one hand and a towel around my waist, I entered the bathroom and placed it on the soap stand. Opening the shower to full flow, I stood under it as water cascaded down my pate. With my eyes closed, I stretched my hand towards the soap box and opened the packet.

Pish! To my utter chagrin, I felt some seed-like particles clinging to my hand. I closed the tap and found the stuff to be aniseeds! Cursing the shopkeeper under my breath, I repacked the item and had a plain ablution. My failure to employ my caveat emptor to know the contents of the packet acutely pricked my conscience. I returned to my room and kept the packet safely on my table so I could chuck it back at the shopkeeper later.

The next day, I returned to the shop, showed the owner what he had sold me in the name of soap and questioned his action. To this, he retorted, "Aapne saunph maanga aur humne wohee aap ko diya tha" (You wanted aniseeds and I gave you the same)!

An onlookers at the spot turned to me and apprised, "Saabji, aapko maangna thaa saboon" ("Sir, you should have asked for saboon"). I comprehended only then that soap was called 'saboon' in Hindi. The experience taught me to quickly brush up my colloquial Hindi.

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