Maintain your clam

‘Don’t forget, we need to go to Lightning Warehouse today,” said my mum as we tootled along Malibongwe Drive.

I looked in the rearview mirror and caught my sister shaking her head.

“Where Mum?” I asked innocently. “There, up ahead, on your right. Lightning Warehouse,” she said again, without missing a beat.

I smiled and let it slide, though I don’t often let her off the hook. When she sends me an SMS on deadline reminding me to be “peasfull”, you will often hear me growling or laughing, depending on my mood.

Once my mum—also known as Surya Singh—sent me an SMS at work asking if I wanted “brockley” for dinner—and I growled. My colleague Pat Schwartz—a wordsmith of note—asked what I was angry about and when I complained about my mum’s spelling, she said something along the lines of: “Well how many languages do you speak? Do you speak Hindi the way your mum does? Would you be able to correct her Hindi spelling and grammar? English is probably one of many languages she speaks, so give her a break!”

It was pretty obvious who had enjoyed the sooji lagan my mum had sent for the subs’ desk that day.

Annoying as it is to admit, Pat was right. My mum is fluent in English and Hindi, can speak broken isiZulu and Afrikaans and is also familiar with many Latin terms. I’m only fluent in English. I speak broken Afrikaans, though I can swear the socks off a trooper in Hindi and sometimes in isiZulu and, after a year of French, I could count from one to five and say “je suis un orange si’il vous plait [I am an orange please]”.

A cunning linguist I am not, though neither is my mataji (mother).

Of course, we’re pretty similar and that means we often have disagreements, especially in public places. A few weeks ago we were having a row in a crowded supermarket.

I can’t remember exactly what the fight was about, but I do remember that when she told me I was making a “sceptical” of myself I had to bite my lip until it bled so that I didn’t burst out laughing because I was too stubborn to let her faux pas throw me off whatever point I was trying to make.

Other malapropisms include her telling me not to forget to get her “genetic” medicine, telling our labrador not to put her “nozzle” on her white sari and sending me an SMS from Umhlanga beach saying how much she was enjoying the “seanery”.

It was only when I was driving one of my aunts around our suburb and my mum was pointing out where some of our relatives lived, that I realised it might run in the family. My aunt said: “Oh yes, now I remember. They all live near Barry Hedgehog Road.”

Worst of all, though, was when my mum handed me a pack of virtue cards she’d picked up in Rajasthan to give to my editor. The cynic inside me told me to check the cards before handing them over to Ferial Haffajee, but I didn’t and a few weeks later I was mortified by what she had to say about the cards, which were translated from Hindi into English.

Ferial was gridlocked in Mayfair so she consulted the aeons-old wisdom of ascetic pundits, neatly packaged for the modern age into easily accessible virtue cards.

“Maintain your clam,” is what the ancient logic had to say.

When she told me a few days later what was written on that virtue card I stood awkwardly in her office, not knowing whether to laugh or be embarrassed about giving her something that wasn’t word perfect.

However, since then, that particular term not only encourages much-needed levity on deadline, it also has the sort of carnal connotations which result in the Mail & Guardian‘s sub-editors saying those imperfect words far more often than you might expect—especially at end-of-year events.

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