Sonority

Thinking about the Jean-Luc Nancy quote – “Sonority is time and meaning” – reminded me of how I relate every song I have ever heard, throughout my life, to a specific time, place and even a mood. I had written about this at length, mentioning each song and its time and meaning for me.

After seeing a comment in Punjabi here on Facebook I was reminded of another aspect of this “sonority” as it unfolded when, as a seven year old, I first arrived at Delhi. Until that point the only last names I had heard were Mishra, Jha, Chaudhary, Agarwal, Bakshi, Gupta, Singh, Shaw and Thakur. 

In Delhi, as I sat in our box rickshaw, headed to school in the mornings or back home in the afternoons, reading the names on the mailboxes was a memorable pastime as the bus traveled from Malviya Nagar to Lajpat Nagar, passing through Greater Kailash II, East of Kailash, Panchsheel and Sadhna Enclave etc., the names were fascinating: Suneja, Juneja, Jadeja, Kukreja, Chadha, Bhanotra, Malhotra, Dogra, Wadhwa, Gulati, Grover, Tandon, Guliani, Wadhwani, Gurnani, Bhangoo, Jhangu, Tandri! I was stunned at the number of “ja”, “wa”,”ha” and “oo” or “u” endings. The colonies we passed through soon became conflated with the mailbox names, where we identified street corners and rickshaw stops with the names on the nearest mailboxes.

Saying them, sounding them out, feeling them roll off the tongue was fun in a way such things can only amuse kids who were also trying very hard to blend in with the other aspects of changed sonority and making conscious decisions to stop saying “ee”, “oo”, “hum”, “kal”, “roti”, “bhat”, “khatiya”, “tilkut” with “ye”, “woh”, “main”, “nalka”, “rotti-shotti” or “fulke”, “chawal”, “charpai”, “gajak”, respectively, not to mention acquiring new ones like “gusalkhana”! I still can’t get over how the folks in Delhi, specifically Malviya Nagar, insisted on calling our family “Hindustani”. I suppose their memories of partition and coming east were still fresh 27 years later.

The same thing happened fourteen years later, in my move from Delhi to Maryland when history repeated itself with the listening, changing and adjusting. I remember the exact moment in time when the British (or Indian) way of saying “transfer” morphed into the American way of saying it when a bus driver couldn’t understand what I was saying when I said it the way I was used to saying it.

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