Doosron ko naseehat, khud miyan faseehat
(He) gives others advice and he himself is only talk and no action (lit. Mr. Eloquent)
This creative Urdu expression (ironically!) describes one of my earliest memories. The head teacher of my school in Lahore came outside one day, declaring that we must all speak only English from now on; speaking Urdu was not allowed anymore. Despite the seriousness of her voice, I found this highly amusing since our “madam faseehat” made the announcement in the very language she was forbidding us to speak – Urdu!
I was born in London and have lived here for most of my life but I spent a couple of years in Lahore when I was very young and like many British Pakistani families with close relatives still living in Pakistan, we visited regularly growing up. Perhaps, in part due to these early experiences, Urdu expressions have always managed to fascinate and amuse me in equal measure because I can relate to them in the same way that native speakers can, having grown up listening to and laughing at my mum coming out with one liners that match the everyday situation perfectly.
Alongside the giggles, like many bilinguals, I have also felt more than a little frustrated at finding myself in a situation that could be described perfectly by using one of these expressions, but unable to do so because there is no equivalent in English! So, here I present some common Urdu expressions that English needs to find an equivalent for pronto.
- “Naach na aaye to aangan tera”
(When you) can’t dance, then the courtyard floor is (always) uneven / crooked
Admittedly, this one does have an equivalent in English “a bad workman always blames his tools” and we need to bring it back into more common usage! The above expression refers to a person who won’t admit that they are incompetent or not able to do something and will blame anyone or anything except for themselves. For example, you can’t cook to save your life but it’s never your fault. It’s always the oven or the ingredients or the badly-written recipe you followed. Anything but the bungling cook. (This may or may not refer to me when it comes to making perfectly round rotis!)
- “Kare daaRi wala, pakRa jaye moochon wala”
The bearded man does (the deed) and the mustached man gets caught.
This refers to how sometimes one person does the crime and someone else takes the blame. I’m sure all of us have been blamed for something a sibling or cousin did. My favourite examples though are probs those adorable videos of toddlers blaming the poor cat or dog for their shenanigans!
2. “Bagal mein bachcha, sheher mein dhindora”
The (lost) child is standing right next to you, while you are creating a ruckus in the city.
The closest idiom to this in English could be “to make a mountain out of a molehill” but it also has the meaning of making a fuss over something that is right under your nose.” So, it’s basically that annoying flatmate, sibling, spouse etc. who is yelling at you to help them find their keys or phone because they’re running late for work whilst holding said “lost” item in their very hand!
3. “Khooda pahar, nikla chua, wo bhi marawa”
(You) dug a mountain (of dirt), out came a mouse, that too a dead one.
This means you worked very hard for something, but have nothing really to show for it. This is often how one feels when after waiting for ages on the phone to the customer service helpline you finally get through and they tell you that you need to email them about the issue for whatever reason or better yet they cut the call! It’s a special kind of annoyance, that is.
4. “gul khaaye, gul gulon se parez”
(you’ll) add rose preserve to your paan, but you won’t have dessert.
This is someone who’s a bit of a hypocrite with their eating habits. They will eat what they please when they feel like it but refuse otherwise. This one kind of reminds me of those people who will always get a diet coke with their takeaway or that uncle who drinks tea with 3 sugars every few hours but won’t have dessert (well, at least when his wife is looking!)
‘Gul’ in this expression is actually short for gulkhand which is a kind of rose preserve made with rose petals and lots of sugar, it is commonly used in paan which is much loved and indulged in just like other bad habits. Interestingly ‘gul’ in a general context can refer to any flower, not only roses and is closely related to the word gulshan meaning garden.
(FYI: Paan is a snack made from the betel nut wrapped in a leaf often with other spices, regular consumers often have a characteristic reddish tinge to their teeth and gums. It has similar chemical compounds to tobacco and is also addictive.)
5. “Kawa chala hans ki chaal, apni bhi bhool gaya.”
The crow is walking like a swan and forgot its own way of walking
This means that someone is trying to do a job / task that they are totally not qualified for and has forgotten about their own workload. This is quite a different take on incompetence than the “fake it till you make it” mentality where doing what you know best is encouraged. Instead here, one is warned against interfering in things they don’t know anything about and neglecting their own duties or responsibilities as a result.
Harry Potter fans – this expression basically sums up the character – Cormac Mclagan who tried to teach other players during a quidditch match how to play their positions, leaving the goals unprotected in the process! (For those of you who don’t know what I’m going on about, go read the books right now!)
P.s. I’d like to thank my ammi (mum) and my good friend Farah, for putting up with my endless questions and pestering whilst I was writing this article!