My father was a school dropout.
Yet there was no man who loved education as much as him. His English knowledge was mostly self taught. Our house was filled with books and magazines of the highest caliber: Time, Span, Illustrated Weekly Of India , National Geographic and The Hindu Newspaper.
Yet his English tripped him up often.
Once when we were going by road to our native town, we passed by rows and rows of Gulmohar Trees, profuse with orange and red flowers.
I pointed it out to my sons and said that they were also called, “Flame of the forest.” My father loved that name.
“I did not know that.” He said wonderingly. “Why is it called that?”
“Because it would look like the forest was on fire, if a whole lot of these grew close together.” I told him.
Later when we were coming back, we passed by the very same trees. He excitedly pointed them out and said, “Fire in the jungle trees!” In fact he said ‘jungle’ in our native vernacular tongue, “Fire in the kaadu.”
It took a long time for our laughter to subside and he joined with us in laughing at himself.
“I studied in a village school pa. Not in your prestigious ———– school,” he said mentioning the famous school where he had got admission for my sons with great difficulty.
Once my father was searching for a word in the dictionary. We had a humongous English to Tamil lexicon at home . My father was flipping the pages in frustration not able to find the word he wanted. The morning paper was open before him. Then he called me to his aid.
He pointed to the headline in the paper which said, ‘Railway station sans trains.’
“What does ‘sans’ mean? I am not able to find the word here”.
Seeing his predicament, I told him that ‘sans’ was a French word which meant ‘without.’ I flipped the dictionary to last few pages where there was a section dedicated to “Foreign words used in English often.” Sure enough, ‘sans’ was listed there.
I do not remember why there were no trains in the station that day. But I do remember my father, whenever I come across the word ‘sans’.
One faux pas of my dad, which I thought was too funny was this.
My father ran a big hotel and was used to seeing different types of people coming in to eat at the restaurant.
One day my father mentioned a big business man’s name and said that he had come to lunch with a ‘sweet in the hand.’
“What?” my sister and I were flummoxed. “Why would he bring a sweet to a hotel. Was he not satisfied with the desserts on our menu?”
“No ma. You know ‘sweet in the hand…sweet in the hand.” he said laughing.
“What sweet in the hand?” We asked not knowing what he meant.
“You said that if an older man came with a young pretty girl friend, she was his sweet in the hand.”
Now we under stood what he was trying to say. As usual he had stored that word in our mother tongue Tamil in his mind and made a literal translation into English when articulating it.
The expression my poor dad was trying to convey was:
PS: My father is no more. But today as I write this I know that what I am , is because of him. He made books my best friends for life.
He may have got his ‘fire in the jungle’ wrong.
But his children and his children’s children don’t.
We speak and write pretty good English, ‘SANS’ mistakes.