Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Café or Kaapi

I work in a deemed university near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. The place is an odd cultural hybrid - Sanskrit and Tamizh. And, on campus, there is a tea stall, or to be more relevant to this post, a coffee stall. And you can get coffee there.
The question is, do you really get coffee there. I would argue no. Then, what do we get there? We get kaapi.
The stall has a nice name, Kaapi Kudil. ‘Kudil’ in Tamizh means homestead. Basically, the Tamizh name, though written in English, is Coffee House.
When I first saw the name board, I furrowed my eye brows, contempt writ large on my face. OK, I accept Kudil, but Kaapi? I rebelled.
But this feeling and response deserted me, and I am very thankful, soon enough.
I was thinking what would the name board for a similar outlet in Paris, France say. I have never been to France and I can only make a guess. I decided that that whatever it may say, it would definitely not spell the word “coffee”, particularly given the contempt the French have for English (the language and people). Indeed, the outlet is likely to be called café, a place for snacks and drinks, coffee included.
Just imagine you are a tourist in Paris. Would such a name board furrow your brows? I do not think so. Imagine further, a French man or woman settled in the US or UK, returning to France and seeing it. Would (s)he have a question mark on her/his face? I do not think so. But, bring a middle class person with Tamizh as mother tongue along with, say, a group of Indian urbanites from across the country including Tamil Nadu, watch his face, indeed his whole body as he reads and tries to explain the name board. It will remind you of murukku, extreme contortion. (I could have as well said pretzel, but I wanted cultural relevance!).
There will be apologies galore from the Tamizh person. Kaapi, a down-market term, elicits, among the self-proclaimed Tamizh cognoscenti, unfathomable sneer.
Café – the French have no problem and non-French too. Kaapi, problems all round.
Snobbery. Or, is it snobbishness? Pick the snobbier word!
Raghuram Ekambaram  


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