Toward the beginning of Saadat Hasan Manto's short story "मम्मी" (mammi / Mummy), the narrator and his wife find themselves abandoned to the tender mercies of a friend's slow-moving servant:

मुझे और मेरी बीवी दोनों को प्यास लग रही थी। उससे पानी लाने को कहा तो वो गिलास ढ़ूढ़ने लगा। बड़ी देर के बाद उसने एक टूटा हुआ मग अलमारी के नीचे से निकाला और बड़बड़ाया, “रात एक दर्जन गिलास साहब ने मंगवाए थे। मालूम नहीं किधर गए।”

मैंने उसके हाथ में पकड़े हुए शिकस्ता मग की तरफ़ इशारा किया, “क्या आप इसमें तेल लेने जा रहे हैं ।”

तेल लेने जाना, बंबई का एक ख़ास मुहावरा है। मेरी बीवी इसका मतलब न समझी, मगर हंस पड़ी। नौकर किसी क़दर बौखला गया, “नहीं साहब, मैं... तपास कर रहा था कि गिलास कहाँ हैं।”

Manto, Saadat Hasan. "मम्मी" ("Mummy"). 1954. Accessed at rekhta.org 25 February 2024.


mujhe aur merii biiwii dono.n ko pyaas lag rahii thii. us_se paanii laane ko kahaa to vo gilaas Dhuu.NDhane lagaa. ba.Dii der ke baad usane ek TuuTaa huaa mag alamaarii ke niiche se nikaalaa aur ba.Daba.Daayaa, "raat ek darjan gilaas saaheb ne ma.ngavaaye the. maaluum nahii.n kidhar gae."

mai.nne usake haath me.n paka.De hue shikastaa mag kii taraf ishaaraa kiyaa, "kyaa aap isame.n tel lene jaa rahe hai.n."

tel lene jaanaa, ba.mbaii kaa ek Khaas muhaavaraa hai. merii biiwii isakaa matalab na samajhii, magar ha.ns pa.Dii. naukar kisii qadar baukhalaa gayaa, "nahii.n saahib, mai.n ... tapaas kar rahaa thaa ki gilaas kahaa.N hai.n."

Translation (mine):

My wife and I were both thirsty. When we asked him to get us some water, he began looking for glasses. After a long time he retrieved a broken mug from under the cupboard and babbled, "Last night, sahib had ordered a dozen glasses. I don't know where they've gone."

Indicating the broken mug in his hand, I asked, "Are you about to go buy some oil in that thing?"

To go buy oil is a special Bombay idiom. My wife did not understand its meaning, but she began to laugh. Somewhat at a loss, the servant said, "No, sahib, I ... was searching out where the glasses might be."

What does to go buy oil signify? The story is set in Pune, so the servant's puzzlement at the Bombay idiom is to be expected. And since the wife doesn't grasp the meaning either, it's probably something crude. I do have a somewhat rude guess, but despite having spent a very large chunk of my life in Bombay, I'm not at all certain my guess is correct, so I'll hold out for illumination from someone better-versed with the slang of that city from back when Manto lived there in the 1940s.

  • Apparently there's a Gujarati idiom "Tel leva jaay (Literally: let him/her go to buy oil, meaning who cares?)" - but I guess this wouldn't be referred to as a "special Bombay idiom" in a story written in Hindi?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 26 at 8:39
  • My cousins use tel lene gaya (तेल लेने गया / he has gone to get oil) to say that someone has left and is unlikely to ever return. I don't think that's what's going on here. (Although they did like in Bombay for like two years.)
    – CDR
    Feb 26 at 13:42
  • Another speculative thought...This book's glossary translates X gaya tel lene to "let X go to hell." The book doesn't take place in Bombay, though.
    – CDR
    Feb 26 at 14:22
  • @Randal'Thor Gujarati was the first language of a plurality (not majority) of Bombay residents back when I lived there, and the peculiar Hindi dialect Bambaiya (= "of Bombay") is characterized by promiscuous borrowings from Gujarati and Marathi. So sure, why not. The lowlifes who populate Manto's stories definitely speak Bambaiya, not a chaste Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani.
    – verbose
    Feb 26 at 18:55


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