Wallet,” reads one entry on Samosapedia (Samosapedia.com). “Adjective. When you pay someone a small fee to park your car, and later, bring it back to you, usually at five-star hotels. Sometimes incorrectly pronounced, ‘vallay’.”
Between Aai ga and Zindabad lies the demotic of a subcontinent—and the most serious effort to chronicle it on the Internet, Samosapedia. Well, “serious” is one word for it. Samosapedia, which went live just over a month ago, is in the process of compiling something like a desi Urban Dictionary, a “definitive guide to South Asian lingo”.
The results will make you laugh. “Headbath. Verb. The daily act of washing your hair.” “Traditional with Modern Outlook. Phrase. She speaks the vernacular, toasts the coconut before putting it in the keerai koottu…but in the privacy of youthful company she knocks back Old Monk Rum and Thums Up.”
Projects like these can be irritatingly patronizing about desi English usage. But Samosapedia is not just about smiling at our Hobson-Jobson vocabulary. It is also about building a tongue-in-cheek but comprehensive resource of a dialect that connects many English speakers across the urban and rural parts of the subcontinent.
Web view: Currently the site contributions are largely about south India. Photo Pradeep Gaur/Mint
“We see the site having one foot in the past—how sad would it be if a kid born today never knows what dark room (the children’s game) or Gold Spot (the cold drink) is?” says Vikram Bhaskaran, one of five friends who initiated the project. “And one foot in the present; when a new word is invented we want it to quickly find its home on Samosapedia.”
For many people the Samosapedia entries—written and edited by contributors based on personal vocabularies and crowd-sourcing via Facebook and Twitter—are indeed awash in nostalgia. Entries like “elocution” (noun, “some poor kid typically mugs a poem/chapter from a Gora author they have no connection with…”) or Godrej (noun, “steel cupboard…”) will spark off memories in middle-class homes, regardless of their native language.
Many others come from well within the Indian part of Indian English. If you want to know why your friends in Bangalore use “sakkath” as an intensifier, or when it is appropriate to say “ainvayi” in Delhi, Samosapedia offers a ready reckoner. Unlike many popular desi culture communities on the Internet, the majority of its input is from source-land, but it contains some diaspora talk too (if you want to know who a “Hinjew” is, look it up).
When Bhaskaran and partner-in-crime Arun Ranganathan first hashed out the idea of a dictionary of desi-isms, “we first called it Wonly.in, for ‘wonly in India’, or even ‘we are like this only’,” Bhaskaran says. But they wanted the site to be inclusive of shared colloquialism from all over the subcontinent, so they went with the slightly absurd and always intriguing “samosa” as a starting point instead.
“What could be more iconic to desis than the samosa, which exists in some form or the other just about everywhere you’d think of as having a South Asian influence, whether it’s in a Burmese soup or called the ‘sambusa’ in Kenya and Ethiopia?” Bhaskaran says. “It’s pretty ubiquitous, from Chennai to Karachi.” Not to forget, he says, the word “Samosapedia” makes everyone laugh.
Currently, site contributors seem to be tipping the Samosapedia balance somewhat in favour of the south Indian end of things, but with more contributors from other parts of the region, there should soon be equivalents to “Macha” (noun, lit. brother-in-law but also close friend) and “da” (“…these days used for females as well”) up on the dictionary. The site’s founders say they are hoping for future contributors to come with the same appreciation for humour and personal touches on which the site has been built so far.
“Leave your chappals, suit-boot and seriousness at the door,” Bhaskaran advises. But if you want an orthodox reference guide, kindly avoid (verb. “Have some sweet, beti.” “No thanks aunty, I’ll avoid”).