One of the advantages of traveling a lot is that you get a lot of plane/train/automobile time to catch up on your reading. And in the past few weeks, I had managed to do just that, reading some sci-fi and some non-sci-fi books, and consciously avoiding Wodehouse, the way a chap who has drunk too much every day of the week consciously avoids the pubs on Sunday. There is one thing such as too much of a good thing.
But the chap, avoiding the bottle for a good three hours into the evening comes upon a store that shouts out loud: "Happy hour!", or possibly, "Cobra beer available here!" finds his resolution breaking down, and thus last evening I walked out of the Airport bookshop in Bangalore clutching "The Luck of the Bodkins".
The flight was nice, once people who looked up in alarm at my chuckling by myself every five minutes or so decided that I was a harmless geek trapped in the body of a harmless geek, and diverted their attentions elsewhere, like the extremely cute flight attendants. I would have given them more attention, and possibly even talked to them, but then I came upon a passage that put an end to the chuckling. This is that passage, read very carefully:
(But first - a bit of background: Monty Bodkin, who is, at the time, in France, is writing a letter to his fiancee, and wants to enquire about her father, who is suffering from sciatica. At which point, he realizes that he does not know how to spell 'sciatica'. Read on.)
...he had first consulted his friend the waiter, and the waiter had proved a broken reed. Beginning by affecting not to believe that there was such a word, he had suddenly uttered a cry, struck his forehead and exclaimed:
"Ah! La sciatique!"
He had then gone on to make the following perfectly asinine speech:
"Comme ça, m'sieur. Like zis, boy. Wit' a ess, wit' a say, wit' a ee, wit' a arr, wit' a tay, wit' a ee, wit' a ku, wit' a uh, wit' a ay. V'la! Sciatique!"
Upon which Monty, who was in no mood for this sort of thing, had very properly motioned him away with a gesture and gone off to get a second opinion.
Not funny. Not funny at all. Those of you who did find it funny evidently have not tried spelling bees with a Frenchman. I was forced to learn the language at a weak period in my life - it was shortly after I had shaved off my moustache, and as any man who has shaved off his moustache would tell you, it leaves your upper lip exposed and for a long time, till you get used to the air on your upper lip (as opposed to the 'air that was on it, ha, ha) you have this feeling that suddenly everyone is looking at your upper lip and secretly laughing at it. "Look at that chap's upper lip! Hahahahaha!", their smiles seem to say. If you're not able to find an ex-mustached chap to confirm this, think Samson's hair. Karna's armour. Scorcese's eyebrows. See?
Anyways, as I was learning french, I realized that they were a little confused about a few things, namely the alphabet. They pronounce "i" as "e", "e" as "a", and "q" as "k". But they write "i" as "i", "e" as "e", and "q" as "q". There are a few more pronunciations I remember being puzzled about, but the memory is hazy - this was about three years ago. In any case, I did remember a smattering of french, and on my trip to Ladakh, I thought I saw a golden opportunity to use it.
Kakkar, Gina, and I were on our way back to Leh from Nubra valley (where we saw bactrian camels, but more on that later), and we had stopped for a bit of lunch at this small village called Khalsar. We were sitting back after a satisfying meal, when I heard a voice off-stage.
"Exxcuze me, way-ar I find a Enfield mecanique?"
I turned around, and saw a young european chap in full riding leathers. His name, he told us later, was François, and he was on his way back to Leh, and that his riding companion, an Englishman, had had an accident, and the army had eventually airlifted him to a hospital in Leh. So now our man was riding back to Leh alone, and it looked like his Enfield Electra was out of lube oil. We apprised him of the situation, which was that no, there was no mechanic nearby, and that the nearest place he would get oil would involve a forty km ride. His bike was in no condition for the trip. Kakkar's clutch cable was doing a good job of acting out the "to be or not to be" sequence in Hamlet, while Kakkar wanted it to firmly stay in the "to be" zone. Thus, I found myself taking a longish ride in search of oil, with François riding pillion. We made good time, stopping only once to pick up the chain guard of my bike, which had fallen off laughing when François made a remark about my bike being smooth.
Two hours later, we topped up his oil and invited him to ride with us. Safety in numbers and all that sort of thing. And all was going well, when, on the climb to Khardungla pass, I saw François, Gina, and Kakkar stop and gesticulate wildly. Fearing an avalanche, I looked over my shoulder in the general direction they were pointing, and saw a furry brown animal the size of a mutant rabbit run off into the rocks.
"It's a Himalayan Ferret!"
My knowledge with respect to Himalayan fauna was limited, so I accepted this. Ferret. Now if only I could have seen what it looked like.
"'Ow you spell Fehrret?" François wanted to know.
If you had ever studied physics in school, you'd know that some teachers always have pet questions that they would love to have you ask them. So they start by telling you about luminiferous ether, and how it was omnipresent, like God, and very dense, perhaps like God again, but I wouldn't want to speculate on it, and leading us on, till one of us put up our tiny little hands and asked, "But why don't we feel it if it is dense?", and a slow smile would spread across his face, and a twinkle would appear in his eye. He then would say, "A-ha! That is exactly what Michelson and Morley wondered!" and then go on to explain the experiment. Right up to that moment, if you had asked me if I knew why these teachers were so happy to be asked such non-challenging questions by kids, I'd have looked you in the eye and shaken my head. Very difficult to do, looking someone in the eye while shaking the head, but I'd have done it. But not anymore. François' question had the effect of pouring oil on my rusty french, and I rose to the occasion. Ah, the poor man, how he must have suffered trying to convert english phonetic spellings into French. Fortunately for him, I was just what the doctor ordered. A slow smile spread across my face, and a twinkle appeared in my eye.
François seemed to consider this.
I heard a few ugly snickers, which threatened to, and eventually did, burst into gales of laughter. The only people who did not find the goings-on funny were François and yours truly. And that was probably all that François had going for him at the moment. What did he mean, I remember thinking, by claiming to be French when he could spell perfectly well in English? What about the famous French pride? Gah! And thoughts to this effect. Still, I had made an effort, and if I had to tattoo the spelling of 'Ferret' into his skull, I would. I continued doggedly:
"Non, non - I was spelling it in French for you..."
More laughter from the direction of the snow. François merely looked puzzled.
"F-e...hahahahahahah...r-r-...oh, God...-e-t. Ferret", Gina finally gasped.
"Aah, Fehrret!" A broad smile lit up François' face. "I weel remember!"
And what with all the howling and guffawing, the Ferret never did resurface, and I had to later satisfy my curiosity with a photograph displayed on one of the curio shops.
To top it all, the damn thing was a Himalayan Marmot, not a Ferret. Not that I'd ever know the difference, but perhaps a Marmot would have gone down better in spelling.