Indian proverbs

Every old culture has amazing pithy sayings that we have all heard from our grandmothers.  How many of us use proverbs to make a point these days.

The proverbial power of words!
In a game of words, proverbs can often prove to be match-winners

BRUNCH Updated: Mar 03, 2018 20:58 IST

Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

 

It was the summer of 2009. The argument was raging and I wasn’t winning. My parents were getting old. My brother and I wanted them to move to Bengaluru to be near us. After all, we told them, both of us had conveniently settled in the same city. Bengaluru wasn’t that different from Chennai. Seventy years was no age to start exerting your independence. Why not be practical about the whole thing and move near us? Try it out for a year or two, we added, exulting in how reasonable we were being. If it didn’t work, they could always move back to their home. It would be fun.

Ye Gods

My parents acted as if they loved the idea. Being near the grandchildren would be terrific, they said. But when it came right down to it, they fobbed us off with a variety of false pretences – more like Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can than the folks I knew, loved and was constantly irritated by. It is the wrong season to move to Bengaluru, they said. Let us wait till the monsoon is over. Then they threw the months at us. Nothing auspicious is ever done before Pongal (the harvest festival). Let us wait till it passes. Mood and moment were also used as weapons. Let your mother recover from her backache. We need to be near the homoeopathic and Ayurvedic doctors during this phase. Who wants to drive six hours from Bengaluru to Chennai for a mere doctor’s appointment?

My parents acted as if they loved the idea of moving close to us. But when it came right down to it, they fobbed us off with a variety of false pretences

Once we wisened up to their wily ways, we put more pressure on them using every communication mode possible. My husband sent rental clippings. My brother asked every Bengalurean elder he knew to email my parents and praise the merits of Bengaluru. My sister-in-law and I took turns to call them on weekends and tell them about how easy a move was these days in India. After a while, they stopped returning our phone calls. Then they stopped taking our calls. I mean, which parent does that to their own children?

Before sunrise

One day, I woke up in a fury, drove six hours and arrived at my parents’ doorstep, bedraggled and steaming. Why were these geriatrics being so stubborn? Couldn’t they see that we were doing all this for their own good?

My mom did what every Indian mother does in times of crisis: she fed the problem into fatty, carb-loaded submission. In my case, this was a dozen idlis generously doused in coconut chutney and onion sambar. Suitably fortified to the point of smiling beatifically, I sat down in my parents’ living room to talk about life, love and transitions.

“Why are you so hung up on staying in this leaky apartment?” I asked, thinking, “Oh please, let them not respond with a proverb.”

“Does a donkey know the fragrance of camphor?” asked my mother, right on cue. “Kazhuthai-ku theriyuma karpura vasanai?”

My father helpfully translated it in multiple Indian tongues, all of which seemed to be obsessed with simians and asses.

“What does a monkey know about the taste of ginger? Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swaad?”

“Does a donkey know the scent of kasturi?” (Kannada)

“A donkey cannot appreciate the taste of jaggery.” (Marathi)

“Does a dog know what is good?” (Malayalam)

I shook my head. “Why this obsession with aphorisms? Between all the monkeys and donkeys that you are quoting, who are smelling objects like jaggery and ginger which are irrelevant to this discussion, why won’t you listen to the people who truly care about your welfare – your offspring?”

“It’s not that, my dear,” said my mother, trying to calm me down. “Five fingers of the hand are not the same.”

Whose line is it anyway? 

“Really?” I thought. “Another proverb?” I did the only thing possible in this situation. I joined them at their game.

“Ma, moving to Bengaluru is like downing two mangoes with one stone.”

“But for us, it is like putting our feet into a lake without knowing its depth,” said my mother.

“Not only that,” added my Dad. “You are all so busy. We will be like a ‘pooja-velai-la karadi,’ like a bear showing up in the middle of a prayer.”

“That is just in your head, Pa. You have to remove a thorn with a thorn.”

None of us were making sense anymore but I was beyond caring. The beauty of Indian proverbs is that they sound pithy and powerful. They made me feel like an orator.

“Like Winston Churchill said,” I said grandly, “The only thing that you have to fear is fear itself.”

“That was Franklin D Roosevelt,” replied my father, having the last word as usual. “And he said that during one of America’s darkest periods.”

“Well, this period is not like that,” I said hastily. “This is going to be a sunny period for you if you move to Bengaluru.”

(This fortnightly column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

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