While Marathi is our mother tongue, sarcasm is our second language, writes Gouri Dange, who was born and brought up in Mumbai and acquired a degree in Being Thoroughly Maharashtrian after her move to Pune
(All the characters here are entirely real, and resemblance to anyone you know is not a coincidence at all – of course, with the rider that there are honourable exceptions to every stereotype.)
Hello, Myself Marathi-Manus. You may have heard of us, for several reasons, but getting to know us is hard work, and the Rest-of-India better be prepared. We enjoy being difficult. Look at our name, to start with: Ma-ha-ra-sh-tri-an. Multisyllabic. Thirteen letters long, with four As in it. Plus, you have to think of us in super-duper terms at once, what with that ‘Maha’ in there. Maha=Great.
Most entrances to homes greet you with a ‘Welcome’ mat, or maybe a pair of plaster hands in Namaste pose, or even a sticker proclaiming “Guest is God”. Our front door, however, will greet you with the terse suggestion: “Slippers here.” Note the economy of words – lesser mortals would have wordily said: “Kindly remove your slippers here”). Other such injunctions include: “Ring the bell, and WAIT” or “Salespeople and hawkers will be handed over to the police”.
Once you’ve run that gauntlet, and been allowed entry – but only after a good, long two-minute inspection from the peep-hole – chances are that you’ll be left to find a place to sit, while the family disappears inside to wear shirts and pull on trousers over their banyans and striped boxer shorts – the “Kulkarni Bermudas”. That done, it is not unusual for us to announce, “We just had tea.” And that is that. Don’t take it personally. We are like that only. If you had visions of chai and pakodas, you’re in the wrong part of India. The Rest-of-India may waste time and money on hospitality. We have better things to do.
‘Look only if buying’
The Maharashtrian shopkeeper extends this rather dim view of visitors to his customers too. Just because circumstances have placed him in a position to have to soil his hands with the degrading task of selling things, that doesn’t mean you take undue advantage of him, enter his shop, and rub it in, by actually asking for merchandise and service, dammit. They’ve got their strategy worked out. While one may greet you with a “We don’t stock it,” another may helpfully point you towards some more enterprising shopkeeper (who is dismissively referred to as ‘non-Maharashtrian’) where you can take your custom. And if you still foolishly insist on being told the price of something in his shop, he’ll put you in your place by saying: “It’s expensive.” While the other crass and shameless pursuers of business open up yards of cloth and waterfalls of saris for you to choose from, the Maharashtrian shopkeeper will indicate a tightly packed stack and ask you to make your choice quickly. No “Aaiye behenji, kya piyengi?” obsequiousness from him. If it was legal and didn’t cost money, he’d hire someone to stand there with a big stick so that you don’t annoy him by entering in the first place. Many shops carry a stern warning on a little blackboard right at the threshold: “No pointless (“phaltu”) enquiries”. This includes asking for directions or for change for a hundred rupees, asking what time it is, asking for water to drink or for the price of anything in the shop.
Steeped in culture
But here’s the thing: We’ve had women doctors and writers and thinkers for over two centuries now. We’re big on education and reform. We’ll change trains, take buses and walk to lectures on the most esoteric of topics. We’ll come out in full strength, ages ranging from 9 to 90, to fill the classical music halls to capacity, delighting musicians from all over the country with our discerning ear.
For decades now, Maharashtra’s Hindustani music listeners have been a performer’s delight. Many a singer/player has said that it is always rewarding to perform here. And if not rewarding, it is highly revealing, because the audience usually has a discerning ear, which has heard a lot of music, and will make its pleasure and displeasure known, gently but firmly. A musician is able to get a good measure of his skills from the audience reaction in Maharashtra.
A false note struck by the artiste will get a murmur of – not quite disapproval, but something like discomfort, or sometimes even sympathy, particularly if it is a young up-coming performer or an ageing, much loved ustaad/pandit.
How we dress for a performance is also something quite unique. Simply put, we just don’t dress up. Unlike in other parts of India, music performances here are rarely or never ‘dos’ at which we must be seen. So what we wear is immaterial. We will not turn up in tussar silks and diamonds – more likely it’ll be sensible synthetics and flat-heeled sandals, even those plain-jane black slip-on (non-branded) shoes that are so practical when it comes to running for that last bus after the programme… And while on the topic of dressing: if it rains, while the rest of India cowers under trees or buys fashionable rainwear, we are known to keep our heads dry by simply wearing a plastic bag on it. Sartorial fussiness is for the prissy Rest-of-India.
Second language, sarcasm
Ostentation and excess of any kind we disdain. So Bollywood leaves most of us utterly unimpressed. Having a film star for a neighbour, which would delight most Indians, most Maharashtrians see as a real nuisance, “because he and his friends use the lift too much, till all odd hours of the night”. We might hang around a cricketer’s home to catch a glimpse or have our kids photographed with him, but film stars….. naaah – or “shyaa” as we like to say, when at our dismissive best. Hindi not being our strong point, we might say peevishly to the rickshaw driver who slows down to gawk at a passing film star: “Arre, amchya paas Sachin hay, tarr iss bandar ko kyon baghnayka?”
While Marathi is our mother tongue, sarcasm is our second language. We learn it at our granny’s knee.
Maharashtrian Moms specialise in giving their kids a reality check at every opportunity. Other kids are complimented with a “What a sweet child you are,” when they behave. The Maharashtrian child is rewarded with: “Wah….today you’re giving your stupidity a rest?”
We’re caustic…even when we are being helpful. The first Marathi words that non-Marathi speakers quickly learn from the bus conductors is: “Arre…. maraaychay kaay?” (“Hey…want to fall to your death?”) It’s just our way of telling you to come to the front of the bus and not risk your life on the crowded footboard.
No thank-yous, please
We can be extremely helpful, but in our unsmiling, matter-of-fact way. An 85-plus south-Indian retired police officer and his invalid wife, stuck without help during recent lockdowns, describes how, wordlessly, three Maharashtrian families in his building began a relay of breakfast, lunch and dinner dabbas to them. This also included ordering them every other day to don their masks, stay put in one room, while one neighbour or the other came and swept and swabbed the floors and cleaned the bathrooms. As the senior puts it: “But if we try to thank them, they run away mumbling something and looking so awkward. Why do you Maharashtrians not like that word thank you?”
‘Abrupt’ is our middle name. No elaborate, formal, polite conversations for us. Displaying affection, paying and accepting compliments, making small talk…we just can’t or won’t do it. Greet one of us with a hug, and we’re likely to go stiff and subtly ward you off with a rigid palms-outward pre-emptive move. If you step back and say “You’re looking lovely,” we’ll look away and mumble or make some silly joke and change the subject fast. Don’t expect a simple ‘thank you’, and furthermore, don’t ever expect to be complimented in return. We wouldn’t know how.
Now go read something else. It’s our lunch time.