Story behind the Picture #12 Please, what is this fellow saying . . .

 For the benefit of the uninitiated, arrivals in India will encounter a deluge of offers, entreaties and unexpected, labyrinthine connections that will leave them reeling, or laughing their heads off. I heard that J.K.Galbraith described India as ‘functioning anarchy’ as depicted in the postcard I found in Goa. I also heard a description I particularly liked, which is ‘5,000 years of poetry and no two lines rhyme !’

You can, I hope, tell that I loved it in all its diversity. But expectations can often come unstuck; picking up English language newspapers are a bit of an eye-opener, often with rather archaic language commonly used in rather old novels appears frequently in stories; for example, a ‘tec’ (detective) may ‘nab’ (apprehend) ‘miscreants’ (offenders) in a crime story. Although things are changing, personal ads are full of marriage offers, with a high emphasis on females possessed of ‘wheatish’ complexions, and the elusive US Green Card a significant advantage.

Cafe menus also arouse amusement with wild variations on spelling, which I hesitate to criticise since most visitors seem relieved to encounter English as the main language in use, but then feel entitled to chuckle at mis-spellings. (How is your Hindi / Marathi / Konkani or Tamil one might ask). I seem to remember around 15 different scripts in use on every Indian banknote, so I imagine it is a teeth-grinding irony that much of government and day to day transactions are in the language of the former colonial power.

A pen and ink cartoon postcard illustrating the deluge of offers, entreaties and guidance facing the haplesss traveller in India
Postcard from Goa illustrating the Indian onslaught © Harry Photocopy 1986

Even being understood was part of the trickiness, as I found out myself when wishing to travel from Agra, where I’d been staying with my girlfriend, back to Delhi to meet a new incoming group. Now Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, must be one of the world’s most visited cities and almost anyone flying in to Delhi would make the detour wherever possible. 

So when I presented myself at the ticket office window, having spent a little while ensuring I was in the right queue, I was confident of getting my ticket back to Delhi without any difficulty.

My request for ‘One first class ticket to Delhi please’ was met with utter puzzlement and a raising of eyebrows. ‘Where?’ the beleaguered ticket office clerk asked, and I repeated my request for a ticket to Delhi.

Two rail employees pose for the camera
Rail employees have a good life !

This drew a small knot of people around me at the ticket window, each offering a suggestion to another and finally to the ticket clerk of where they thought I was talking about. This seriously took about ten minutes of bafflement, and a growing crowd, some of whom were getting very impatient to get to the ticket window themselves. I mean, Delhi, Delhi, how many ways can there be to say this, and for gods sake it must be one of the commonest destinations for a foreigner travelling by train out of Agra station. Cripes !

Two girls take in the countryside from the open door of a carriage
Taking in the view from an open door is great ! Fellow travellers

‘Delhi’ I said again as clearly enunciated as I could, ‘the capital city !’ Finally, a chorus of ‘Ooooh, Delhi, Delhi he is saying’ accompanied by head waggling brought relief to the ticket clerk’s face, as he realised what was wanted, but disbelief to mine as I asked myself what they could have thought I was asking for.


  • reply Nicola ,

    This was a really interesting post. I love reading about other countries and cultures and I’ve never been to India so it’s nice to learn about it from someone who has. I like the idea of the newspapers using outdated language; it seems very quaint. Also I wonder what they were hearing when you were saying “Delhi”. Maybe it’s just your accent!

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