Forgive the Flies in Bambaiya

When the invitation for the LAF workshop arrived i thought Hindi would be the one language i would go with. On day three, at Adishakti, while discussing ‘Dogs, Mobs and Rock Concerts’ with Sampurna i mentioned it might work well in Bambaiya being a Bombay poem. I was a bit hesitant as Bambaiya is a street language and not ever been considered as literary. The fact that a few million people speak it is an aside.

To Sampurna’s credit, she pushed me with such infectious enthusiasm that i think we sat and wrote ‘Cities‘  in Bambaiya in twenty minutes. The response we got from the audience in Adishakti, Amethyst in Chennai and Pune was heartening.

‘Forgive the Flies’ by Bill Herbert: i had mulled over for days and had a working draft in Hindi in but something was not quite right till it reworked itself in my head as a Bombay poem. ‘Mauf kar Makhi ko’ was a pleasure to write. The overall tone in Bambaiya was kept conversational though a bit more direct than in the original. A few more liberties to work in the cultural context were taken and it changes its character, a shade, by becoming more of a spoken word/performance poem.

Like Meena mentioned there were no words for cortices in Tamil, here too it became bheja = brain. Itta Sa, is what you do when you indicate with your thumb against the first digit of your index finger to mean small or a little bit. i added haath jodey meaning hands joined which flies do if you look at them closely enough into the lines, They greet everything\like little deities because that is how we greet the Deities and they, us. They vomit in their nervous\pleasure became kare ulti bokhlayee khushi mey literally meaning they vomit in angry happiness. Dying hands, did not quite work itself well into Bambaiya. I could have gone with thakele haath = tired hands but the visual of a person trying to swat flies made it garba karte haath – a Gujarati dance form very popular in Mumbai – and waving back became ok – tata – bye bye which is such a desi thing to say and knowing Bill I knew it would appeal to his humour. It also tied in the English influence on Bambaiya.

A short note on Bambaiya: the language kind of evolved around the 1800’s when the Gujarati (Hindu and Bohri) / Parsee traders, Marathi/Konkani fishermen, the Deccani Muslim and Hindu dockworkers, the Hindi belt working class and the English came together. It evolved in chawls – community town houses, a very Mumbai character – and on the docks. In the 1970’s arrived a movie called ‘Deewar’ meaning The Wall, a brilliant adaptation of Cagney’s The Public Enemy, where Amitabh Bachchan plays a character (based on Haji Mastan) that works his way from the docks to become Bombay underworld’s most feared Don. Amitabh went on to play Bombay characters from then on and made Bambaiya popular across the nation. In these temples of popular culture, guided by a flickering light, we all learned Bambaiya. In 1992, i landed in Bombay and the first friends i made were from Nagpada – the area around Bombay Central – who spoke the best Bambaiya possible and my familiarity/fluency with Gujarati and Deccani-Hindustani, two of the three major influences, made the learning easier.

Bambaiya has no defined script nor is it taught in schools. You can write it in Roman, Devnagri, Urdu or whatever you write as long as you make the right sounds. Here it appears in Devnagri, Roman Bambaiya and the original English.

In Devnagri:

Mauf kar Makhi ko

अरे! मॉफ कर मक्खी को
छोटी है
और भेजा इत्ता सा
वोह क्या समझे
किसपे बैठने का |
सबको साली मिलती है
हाथ जोड़े , छोटे भगवान के माफिक :
टट्टी और चीनी
दोनों बराबर उसके लिए, समझा ?
वोह करे उलटी बोख्लाई ख़ुशी मे
और सोचे
वोह मुर्डेली अख़बार
और तेरे गरबा करते हाथ
करे उसको
ok-tata-bye bye  

In Roman Bambaiya:

arey! mauf kar makhi ko
choti hai
aur bheja itta sa,
kya samjhey
kispe baithney ka.
sabko saali miltee hai
haath jodey, chote bhagwan ke maafik:
tatti aur chini
dono baraber uske liye.
woh kare ulti bokhlayee khushi mey
aur sochey
woh mudi li akhbar
aur terey garba kartey haath
karey usko ok-tata-bye bye

Bill Herbert’s

Forgive the Flies

We must forgive the flies
because they are so young,
their cortices so small,
that they don’t understand
what it is they crawl on.
They greet everything
like little deities:
sugar and excrement
are each as good to them.
They vomit in their nervous
pleasure and mistake
our rolled up newspapers,
suppose our dying hands
are merely waving back.

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3 Responses to Forgive the Flies in Bambaiya

  1. Bill Herbert says:

    Fascinating on the evolution of Bambiya: I think there’s a strong analogy here with the development of urban Scots — which my work in Scots certainly relates to. There’s also an evident affinity which really suits this poem.

    In working class Scots we also have a strong variant on the dominant language which sounds different in every city, though it can be related to a more historic Scots, a language with its own literary heritage (that’s more what I’m doing). Like Bambiya, it probably became best known through film: Trainspotting being the relevant movie here, and achieved its most distinctive novelistic form in James Kelman and Irvine Welsh.

    I was going to post next on why I started translating Arjun’s work (and others’) into Scots, so this sets up the question nicely.

  2. Anna Crowe says:

    I really enjoyed reading about the nuts and bolts of working with Bambiya, as described by Bill and Sampurna! I loved all the hand imagery, especially the way ‘itta sa’ looks forward to the greeting in ‘haath jodey’ (but what happened to that in the Roman Bambiya?).

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