The apartment complex where I reside is quite classy. Polished granite flooring, awesome bathrooms, front-door video security cameras, a sassy club, a joggers park – and would you believe it – a lake! Little wonder then, that it is a favorite with the expats. But the moment you leave the luxurious confines of Lake Homes – you are back in India. And you have to do that if you wish to purchase mundane items for daily use. And if any expat (esp. the non-english speaking ones) assumes that granite floors and kirana-store vendors with clipped oxford accents are natural bed-fellows…he is in for a rude (and incomprehensible) shock.
So here I was one Sunday morning – walking into Prabhat Stores run by a god-fearing Gujarati called Nimes-bhai – who makes earwax sculptures when he is not stinking the place up with incense (a dhoop brand called Mallika’s Choice of all things). Now, Nimes-bhai is nice guy. He stocks my favorite brand of body wash, delivers goods home promptly and does not sell Milk cartons from September 2001. He drives a nice bike and wears clean shirts which look like they were cut out from velvet curtains hanging in Buckingham palace. (I said he was God-fearing not Goddy-fearing!) So he has most of the qualities which constitute a nice man in my book – which does not include a knowledge of the Queen’s language. Which is good for him…because despite smiling helpful face – he cannot speak a word of english…other than Shame-poo or Bodie-vos. So when I walked into the shop on that particular Sunday – and flashed him my customary smile, I didn’t get one in return. He was evidently experiencing a great deal of chagrin – which seemed to be caused by a conversation he was having on the phone. As I walked by – he called out “Saab, zarra idhar ek minit aayenge?” I turned and went to the counter stocked with mango jelly and packs of his favorite Mallika Sherawat incense. “Zara inse vaat karo ne? Kuch samajh nahin padh raha hain!” And he handed the phone to me.
“Hello?” I said not knowing what I was getting into.
“Hullo! Hullo! I need Toilet Papier…you know? White paper with which I wipe my ass!” cried out a distressed voice like a German colonel asking his errant soldiers to pay attention.
I was too taken aback to reply. But 30 years of social interaction told my senses to react.
“Mein Gott! Das ist wahnsinn!” (My God! This is crazy!) He sounded like he was about to pass out – or soil his pants – or both.
I gathered my senses – and replied. “Nein. Es ist nicht!” (No. It is not!) “”Sie brauchen Toilet Papier – Ich Verstande…” (You need toilet paper – I understand…)
“Sie sprechen Deutsch?” he asked after a while, in a voice that betrayed bewilderment. “Ja” I replied. “Unbelievable!” he blurted. Then he said in German,”But you cannot even speak english! How can you speak German?!!” Then I realized what was happening…he hadn’t realized that Nimes-bhai had given the phone to me. I chuckled and decided to play along.
“Mein grossvater war vom Munich. Er heist Klaus.” (My grandfather was from Munich. His name was Klaus.) I continued in German, “He was a part of the special grocer community who was driven out by the Nazis during WWII. We all came to Mumbai and settled down…hence you will see that most grocery shop owners in Mumbai speak German…even if not English.”
“Wirklich!!?” (really!!?)
“Ja” I said…thoroughly enjoying myself, “every October all of us wear Bavarian clothes and celebrate the Oktoberfest when we drink a lot of Coconut Water.”
“Das ist sehr intressand!” (This is very interesting!) Then I told him that the next time he visited the grocery shop – he could talk to the guys in German, and asked him for his address where I needed to send the Toilet Paper. He obliged and I said expansively “Danke schon! Haben sie eine gute tag! Tchuss!” (Thank you! You have a nice day! Bye!)
Turning back to a very curious Nimes-bhai I relayed the message and the address – with a big smile on my face – satisfied by my good deed of the day. (I am a little evil that way…)
I really wish I could listen in the next time the German came here and attempted to strike up a conversation with poor khaman-munching Nimes-bhai! 🙂