Do you remember how you met all your friends? I believe the answer is a NO for most of us except those who have just a handful of them. Not easy to forget is the memory of friends we met following some dirty squabble. I bumped into Abishek in a similar way, and he is today one of my close buddies.
During my stay in Shimla, I usually stop by a shop at Khalini to buy momos (local dumplings) upon returning from the gym. I eventually became acquainted with the shop owner, Chandra, who has a greater sense of humor than myself. I would spend most part of the evening at his place together with his friends whenever I don’t have office work to complete. This gives me the opportunity to practice my Hindi language – adding to my umpteen Hindi teachers.
Long into our casual conversation on one eventful day, Chandra’s friend decided to make what would later turn out to be an expensive joke. “Chandra is a nice guy and you can see he is loved by everyone. You know what we call such people in Hindi?” He asked me.
I shook my head but immediately thought he may misinterpret it as an Indian head bobble which signals the affirmative. So, I responded back, “nahi.”
I wanted to say accha-adami which translates to a “good man,” but I knew he was looking for a single word. Perhaps I sensed he was on a mission, so I would never have guessed what he had in mind. He then told me the term for a nice person is gandu, and I can start calling Chandra as such. The way he chuckled after uttering the word and how everyone around laughed as well, warned me there is more to the word than I was being told. Regardless, I began addressing Chandra ji with his new title.
They continue to laugh every time I called him gandu and this more than arouse my suspicion about its meaning. In fact, he doesn’t seem to enjoy the banter as much as them. Nonetheless, they all refused to tell me the true meaning of the word despite my insistence.
This continues until the arrival of Abishak who believes life has to be too serious all day all time. I later learned he is Chandra’s younger brother and a community leader in the locality, hence he stays away from small talks. From the few wrinkles on his face and his conspicuous baldness, I suspected he would be in his late forties. He interjected as soon as he heard me called his brother gandu. “What did you just call my brother?” He asked, with a stern face that says he is up to no jokes.
Ignoring his sullenness, I jestingly responded in my amateurish Hindi, “aapkabhaiganduhai.” No sooner had I completed the statement than his hand landed on my cheek. It took me about 15 seconds to understand that I have just received the slap of my life. “That hurts,” I managed to utter.
Chandra and his friends couldn’t believe what just happened, they stood there speechless. They turned to Abishak explaining to him that it had just been a banter talk all along and no one meant any harm or insult. In fact, the fardesi (I – the foreigner) didn’t know what the word meant. He didn’t buy that, so he went berserk. “I don’t care who he is, it is not acceptable to use such repugnantly abusive language here. I see he speaks Hindi very well, so he undoubtedly knows what he is saying. I know he teaches at the Shimla university, I know the vice chancellor and I am going to report this to the management. He will explain to the police if he is the one who sleeps with my brother. Let them keep their nasty behavior to themselves, we don’t want any of it here.” He said furiously.
I was smiling in bewilderment. At this point, I figured out the word has to do with homosexual act which is still a taboo there, but couldn’t grasp why he has to stand for his quinquagenarian elder brother. Perhaps something new to learn about the Indian tradition (or rather Himachal’s).
In my mind, I was thinking, how on earth would I be the one to explain to the police instead of him for slapping me because I said something he doesn’t like? Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to fight or argue with someone old enough to be my father. I waited until he calmed down before I courteously apologized and explained to him that it is not my character to slander anyone. My Hindi vocabulary isn’t more than 50 words, so he should not expect me to know such a rare word.
Unexpectedly, Abishak realized he had reacted harshly and regretted his hasty and poor judgment. He apologized to me and urged that I forget all that had happened.
“I am still feeling the pain from the slap, so I would forget if you let me slap you back,” I joked, laughing and putting my hand on the receiving cheek.
“Go ahead my friend, you can slap both my cheeks if that is what it takes.” He said, moving a step closer to me and sticking his head out.
I laughed and gave him a friendly hug. Everyone, there was smiling, amused by the sudden turnaround. From that day, Abishak became a good friend of mine, even more than his brother. If he doesn’t see me for a few days, he would call and ask how I am doing. Shortly before I left Shimla, there was an event held in the community for which he was the chair, and he invited me as a guest of honor.
Whenever I want to make fun of him, I would ask if the offer to slap both cheeks is still on the table. However, since the incident, I learned to be careful with words and tread carefully on sensitive cultural lines.