Not long after I moved to Delhi, I found a professor of languages, Dr. Anand, in a neighborhood near my “posh colony,” took home a satchel full of kindergarten primers and started memorizing Hindi words. But, like many an ambitious expatriate student, I started traveling and missing classes, and soon I stopped going altogether. A good adopted Punjabi, I learned to say “loin” and “royit” for “lion” and “riot,” to pronounce “donkey” as though it rhymes with “funky” and “monkey” as though it rhymes with “honky,” and to say “support” for “sport” and vice versa. I picked up a few cricket terms. But the only part of actual Hindi I mastered was the gestures. With these I can make myself understood with the laconic elegance of a rickshaw wallah.
Technique: Holding your right hand, thumb up, at a little above waist level, roll your wrist as though you are throwing a curve ball, turning your palm upward and curling four of your fingers one after another—pinky first—into a loose fist. At the end of the motion your index finger should be pointed interrogatively into the distance like a gunfighter’s pistol and you should have a Clint Eastwood squint of dyspeptic indifference on your face. As an alternative to the Gunfighter, vary your technique by finishing with your first two fingers and your thumb poised as though you are holding a tiny, invisible, perplexing ping pong ball and asking somebody to look at it. I call this the Beatnik.
Usage: The meaning of this motion is “Why not?” or, to be accurate, its cooler Indian substitute, “What’s there?” (Note: Novices may prefer the relative safety of the Beatnik technique, as with the Gunfighter you must take care not to make your Eastwood squint too combative or your finger pointing too emphatic, or to accompany the move with a forward hipthrust. It is easy to cross the line between “What’s there” and “Up yours.”)
LIKE THAT ONLY
Technique: Draw your open hand toward your chest, as though about to waft the vapor of some caustic chemical solution toward your nose, and then snap your wrist dismissively, fingers relaxed, as if you are trying to flick water off of them. Finish with your hand held, palm down, a span or so from your waist, in the pose of an alcoholic testing for delirium tremens. Tilt your head to the left and back, close your eyes partway and give your head a tiny, resigned shake.
Usage: The meaning of this gesture is “It goes without saying that he would behave so disgracefully,” or, more eloquently: “He is like that only.” When greater emphasis is required (i.e. to get the last gesture in an argument) start the motion with your hand parallel to your eyebrows and finish with your fingers a little higher, pointed in the direction of your interlocutor. Depending on the force of the flick, this variation (“You are like that only”) is akin to outstretched palm of the “Talk to the hand” or the ear-twirling forefinger of “Barking mad, isn’t he?”
Technique: Indians do not nod yes and shake no. Try either one and they’ll stare at you, baffled, and draw their own conclusions about what you mean. This may stem from some aversion to committing too completely to any one course of action, since all things are fated and one can never be sure what one will do, or because it’s never prudent to make promises, or because a betrayal of eagerness is the worst way to begin negotiating. In any case, the preferred gesture of assent—if that is indeed what it means—is the wobble. Facing forward, with your head in a relaxed position, tilt your head loosely from side to side, as though it is wobbling on the topmost vertebrae of your spine with the springy motion of one of those sad-looking dogs people fix to the dashboards of cars.
Usage: Though the gesture is most often translated to mean “yes,” as if it exists in direct correlation to the nod, the wobble is layered with nuance, like a Twilight Zone devil’s “as you wish,” and the motion ranges in meaning from “Right away, sir!” to “I feel your pain, but honestly can’t be bothered to help you.” The shades of meaning generally depend on the number of wobbles. For instance, five or six wobbles in either direction indicates servile humility (perhaps concealing a significant hike in price), while a detached half-wobble to the left, eyes partly closed (see “You are like that only”), suggests near total indifference. (Note: Be forewarned that the wobble is addictive. I recently caught myself trying to do it over the phone.)
THE DAILY CONVERSATION
Here’s how it works.
Customer: “Khali hai, Bhaisahib?” (Are you free, brother?)
Autowallah stirs, takes his feet off the useless meter, and rubs his eyes.
Autowallah: (Half wobble toward windscreen, eyes closed).
Customer: “Defence Colony janna hai?”
Autowallah: (Half wobble toward passenger seat).
Customer: “Kitna hoga?” (How much will it be?)
Autowallah: (Half wobble toward passenger seat). “Baitho.” (Sit down.)
Customer: “Kitna hoayga, Bhaisahib?” (How much will it be, brother?)
Autowallah: (Complete but nonchalant wobble). “As you like.”
Customer: “No, no, no. You say first. That way no argument.”
Autowallah: “As you like. No arguing.”
Customer: (What’s there?) “Kitna hoga, Bhaisahib?”
Autowallah: “Pifty rupees.”
Customer: “Pifty! Er… Fifty! Bis dengey” (I’ll give you twenty).
Customer: (He is like that only).
Autowallah: (You are like that only!)
Customer: (Up yours!)
Autowallah: Unprintable (Hindi).
Customer: Unprintable (English).