Cultural Intricacy: Moments of Bewilderment & Enlightenment

Leaving a city can never be very effortless. It comes with jillions of insecurities and confusions, especially when you’re moving for the very first time in your life, to a different geography of the country. Uncovering the social norms, linguistic and dialectical variations, different foods and places, keeping afloat in uncertain situations are all the elements of relocating. But if the aim is good enough, things begin to flow smoothly. This decision of switching to Hyderabad where I would serve as an AIF Clinton Fellow was something I was hubristic with a belief that I, with no sweat, could pull out of it plausibly by virtue of being an Indian Muslim who was moving to a place dominated by Muslim majority. This present notion was in no time shut down in my mind when I just settled down in Hyderabad and I realized that we have to keep going through the process of learn-unlearn-learn. Let’s dive into some of the episodes of my journey where language and food confusion bewildered me and led me unlearn to learn something new:

(Taken from Let’s Chaat, Stories of Fellowship)

If I start to talk about India, I surely can’t stop myself from talking for hours. From the white crown of Himalayas to the ravishing temples of the south, to the dazzling tea gardens of the east, to the white sand beaches of the west. Amidst, you will see a myriad of colors, narrow lanes, unordinary traffic, peppery and sweet food, thousands of cuisines, 7-star hotels with slums next to them, religious processions, mind-blowing history, and over 500 languages.

Underneath all the colors and noises, India conceals a fusion of thousands of mini-cultures. India discreetly and unassumingly uses its languages as a mega-unifier of its people!

It’s hard enough to try and figure out which Indian language to learn, but once you try to learn an Indian language, you will discover layers under layers. 

The same thing happened to me. During the fellowship, I settled down in Hyderabad, the city of pearls and Nizams. Out of my overconfidence, I was expecting zero language puzzlement, probably because of the Muslim majority in the city who speak Urdu. 

On the very first day, I headed out to hunt for a good hostel. I found a promising one, and asked the hosteler, “Hi, do you know where I can meet the warden of this hostel?” 

“Paina!” she answered.

I was a bit perplexed and wondering why she was saying paina? Oh, wait, she might be in doubt that I have a knife or something sharp and I can be threatening to the hostel. But why would I possess anything sharp? Anyway, I thought, I’ll clarify her doubt. 

I told her, “No. no. I don’t have anything paina or sharp? Though I am a Khan, I am not a terrorist. I am here only for a room to live in.”

She again gave the same reply, Paina!

I really didn’t have any idea of what she was saying, and I was trying hard to make her understand that I could not get her. Then, she grabbed my hand and led me upstairs, where I could see the warden. The girl explained everything about our conversation in Telugu which I could hardly understand. Then the warden laughed and explained to me that in Telugu, ‘paina’ means ‘up’ or ‘upstairs’ and in Hindi, it means ‘sharp’. 

My room-mates: Jayshree on left, Harika in the middle, and Mantasha on the right side.

Living with people who could barely understand you and your language can be extremely difficult and funny at the same time. When I shifted to the hostel, I realized that I was the only Hindi-speaking girl there. I roomed with three other Telugu speaking girls who knew neither Hindi nor English.

From that time, we started to communicate using bodily actions, facial expressions, and a few English words which we all had in common.

One day my roommate called me by the word ‘pilla’, I got slightly heated up at first and asked what did you say? She repeated herself ‘pilla’, and explained to me that in Telugu ‘pilla’ means ‘girl’. My co-fellow Sahana, once filled me in that the word means a boy’  in Oriya, while I could recall the same in Hindi which means ‘puppy’. 

I delighted in learning all of the puzzling, funny, insightful, and quick-witted similarities among words of different Indian languages. I was relieved that people in my office spoke Hindi or Urdu instead of Telugu. 

Mutton Biryani with Mirchi Ka Salan and Salad. (Picture Credits @Tripadvisor.

However, this chain of language and culture confusion continued during my fellowship journey. In the month of February, I received a wedding invitation from my colleague. I was full of excitement and vigor, planning everything from the dress I would wear to the dishes I wanted to try at the wedding. I dolled myself up, keeping in mind the culture and tradition of that community. I was seated at a big round table along with other people. Waiters served multiple mouth-watering dishes, rumali roti, salad, and double-ka-meetha.

I filled my plate with a creamy orange delicacy that looked just like butter chicken, one of my favorite dishes. I thought, ‘Finally, after so long in South India, I can fill my stomach with rotis!’ I had missed those classic North Indian dishes from my home. I took a big morsel full of that mouth-watering gravy. But in a moment I could feel my mouth burning and sweat on my face. I had been deceived by a dish called ‘Mirchi ka Salan’ which looks similar to butter chicken, but is actually a famous Hyderabadi dish made from curried chili peppers.

Indeed, India is a complex web of languages, foods, attires, religions, thoughts, beliefs, cultures and traditions. I think it’s extremely hard to understand India as a whole. The moment that you seek the familiar comfort of butter chicken is the moment that the heat of mirchi ka salan will sneak up and surprise you! The more you know about India, the more you have to discover – that’s the beauty in it.

Mantasha is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with SAFA in Hyderabad, Telangana. For her Fellowship project, she is designing a communication strategy for engaging illiterate and semi-literate women and children at skills training centers and for publicizing program impact externally. Born and raised in a small district in western Uttar Pradesh, Mantasha pursued her education from Aligarh Muslim University. She graduated in English Literature in 2015, pursued a post-graduate diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2016, and completed her Master’s in Social Work in 2018. All through her academic pursuits, Mantasha weaved a dream of playing a part in the development sector. She began her career in Buildyourself Sewa Sanstha as project coordinator to work on skill development of youth and handicraft artisans in Moradabad. During her graduation, she spent a year to work as block coordinator in Nirbal Samaj Kalyan Parishad in Aligarh, focusing on education, health, and family welfare. She interned with Digital Empowerment Foundation in New Delhi, offering digital literacy to children in slum areas. Mantasha strongly believes in the power of storytelling and the capacity of a person to share their own to bring change and also draw inspiration from the stories of others. Owing to this belief, she particularly gets pleasure from creative works like composing poetry, writing quotes and short stories, painting and sketching, and art and craft works in her leisure time. She also enjoys learning new skills through virtual courses. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Mantasha is tremendously excited to foster her experience and knowledge in the development sector. For her, this Fellowship would act as an incubator where she can implement her ideas and expand her learning.

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