The Map of Mishearing

My friend Mandy has recently taken to translating deep, spiritually resonant lines of poetry from Bangla to English. It is hilarious. I recommend it heartily to everyone with nothing better to do. Lately, feeling just literal translation wasn’t cutting it, she has started deliberately misunderstanding words in the original. Her latest is “Ki aashaye bNadhinu khelaghor, bedonaar baluchawr-e”, which she translates as “For what hope, ah, buildst thou thine playhouse, on the seashore of pomegranate?”

I rest my recommendation. However, poor Mandy has to actually work at mishearing and misunderstanding things. I have no such constraints. Indeed, I have a now-nearly-legendary ability to mishear important things at crucial moments, much to my embarrassment and everyone else’s delight (the world is crool like that). As far back as October 2008, I had accepted my role as the inadvertant clown, and written a brief monograph on this talent of my mine.

Well, I say brief. Here it is (with the original comments).


I am the stuff legends are made of. In fact, I think I can safely proclaim I Am Legend. Whether I wish to be quite the sort of legend I turned out to be, is, of course, an entirely different matter, and one I shall stoically refuse to comment on. I am assured by the general public hereabouts that being popular is far more important than being of consequence, and told that popularity in any available form is to be grabbed at and held onto while the fashion lasts. I’m happy to accept this at face value for the time being, and since my popularity stems from people’s inclination to point a finger at me and laugh, I am even prepared to be grateful that I do not have to put in extra legwork to be the new hot stuff on the block.


While I am not, as I said, criticising the tendency of the general populace to take mirthful advantage of my inherent clownishness and drama-queenery, I do wish they would pick and choose their moments with more care. For example, on a sunlit winter afternoon years back, when my salad days had just begun to wilt, I was jerked out of my pleasant physics-class reverie by the (otherwise utterly adorable) teacher sharply demanding the whereabouts of a spiritual truck of mercury of me. I was suitably befuddled.

“A spiritual truck of mercury, ma’am?” I asked stupidly, trying to blink the dazzling sunlight out of my eyes (I had been staring out of the window at the neighbouring school’s sports field).

This harmless question was followed by a second of complete silence, and then by uproarious laughter from every quarter save the teacher’s desk. It was then that I chanced to glance at the board, and saw ‘Surface Tension’ written in large block alphabets, and underlined. And it dawned on me that the seemingly esoteric question might just have been, “What is the surface tension of mercury?”

Yes. I admit it. I often hear rather creative renditions of things actually said to me. I am not entirely sure I can blame this on my hearing, since I hear these cre. rens. perfectly clearly, with no blurring ’round the edges. But, and I wish to emphasise this, my supposedly comical hearing sometimes transforms things into far more appealing versions of the original. I shall be the first to admit “…and we shall prance on gravestones” is not the best remake of “…and we can dance to Dave’s tunes”, especially since Dave is a nervous amateur DJ and the person speaking to me was his militantly devoted sister, but more often than not, I do better.

For instance, till I was quite a bit older, I thought the nursery rhyme went thus: “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them; Leave them alone, and they’ll come home, bringing their tails behind them.” Younger and far more cynical and derisive of the world then, than I am now, I scoffed at the silly poet who felt the need to underline the fact that sheep carry their tails with them when they travel. The same tails, in fact, to which they are physically attached by bone and sinew and the leaving behind of which would entail a great deal of possibly painful physical effort. However, as I grew older, I found I also grew curiously mellow at the idea of those cute woolly fluffballs shaking their cute little tushes at the camera (like they do in cartoons), giving their tiny fluffy white tails a cute last wiggle before scampering inside the warmth of their pwetty little hardwood shelters. Awww.

Except, when I recited this version to my baby cousin, she primly told me that it actually went “…and they’ll come home, leaving their trails behind them”. I had to admit this made more sense than waxing silly about sheep bringing up their rear, as it were, when they returned from a bracing day-long stroll. But the squishy happy warmth inside me was dowsed forever. My little private glow that helped me (occasionally) see sheep as something other than food was buried under cold ashes. My childhood innocence died. At the hands of a child. A more ironic tragedy I cannot imagine.

Or, take the instance of that timeless number. For as long as I can remember, I thought a particular verse went, “Rahe koi saw pardon mein, darey sharam se, nazar ka gilaaf churaaye koi sanam se”. Except when I tried to sing it along with an Allahabadi friend, she burst out laughing. “Nazar ke gilaaf churaye koi sanam se? Preeyunka (she couldn’t say ‘Priyaanka’), what does that even mean?”

It was pointless, I knew, but I couldn’t help it. I pouted. I mean, really. “What does that even mean?”? Well, it means something a good deal more poetic than the run-off-the-mill “nazar something laakh churaye koi sanam se”, thank you! Can you not feel the little poetic tale that mishearing weaves? Can you not imagine public affection in the fifties? Can you not see a coy young beauty, affecting the graces of a shy fawn, smiling with restrained delight on hearing her love declare — under the guise of singing about all destined lovers — that they would belong to each other soon? Could you possibly miss the moment in which she, shielded behind her mother’s vaster figure, perhaps, or behind a gaggle of her friends, raises her eyes at him, anxious to catch a quick unobserved glance? And, having watched countless such interludes in our films, can you not immediately predict that he shall raise his far bolder eyes at her that precise moment, and that they shall hold each other’s gaze in a moment of sensual privacy in a crowded room? Can you not see his mischief suddenly sparkle as he matches verse to glance, and sings about the momentary pleasure of basking under the warm appreciative blanket of his love’s look? Brought back, by these words, to the realisation of an audience, can you just not see the young lady blush and immediately look away, ending the private moment and leaving the man to promise her, in verse, that they are destined to soon fulfil the promise held in that brief stolen glance?

Can you not see, really, that you can make little bubbles of wonderland from everyday, regular words? Or even words that are already pretty, but never pretty enough to what a mind comically detached from reality can make them be? Think with my mind, I would like to challenge my erstwhile classmates who laughed so uproariously at me, and see if you want to go back to the dreary old world of word-perfect hearing. Hah. Surface tension of mercury indeed!



  1. heheh. very nice post. I tend not to hear things wrong, which is the one thing that saved me from my not-at-all-adorable chemistry teacher. but i would like to, if it’s things like these.

  2. 😀

    when i was a child, i spake as a child…but then i grew up, and i gave up childish things.

    this was a hymn we had in prayer at school. ‘spake’ was a misprint, but i convinced myself it was some form of old english.

    and you know, it isn’t just you. ac/dc is also back with black ice. they’re also in top form, despite the years. 🙂

  3. i beat you shitless on the bhulshona score, even more on the bhulebongdeterminedlyobsceneshona score.

    btw, neighbouring school er maath dekhchhili na kheloyaar? porer ta hole ‘spiritual,’ maane bhabuk/hotash, hoyar jayga dekhi bote.

    plus, i demand newpost because to me at least, this was oldstory.

    veryoldstory, actually.

    so get to it. chop chop

  4. My own favourite mondegreen was by my 4 year old neighbour who changed

    “Sayyoni mera maahi mere bhaag jagawan aa gaya”


    “Sayyoni mera maahi mere baal katawan aa gaya”

    By the way, your Allahabadi made a mistake.

    Gilaaf – Pillow cover (The word Gelaap is used in some parts of Bengal too)

    Lihaaf – Blanket (“Lep” in Bengali)

  5. Rhea — thank you. Mishearings are always great fun. Blurting them out, however…

    C&B — child, learn. Especially since you consider yourself my chalta-firta thesaurus. “Spake” is *not* a typographical error. It’s a proper word. Which school did you go to, again? 😉

    RM — well, that’s what my cousin said. She may have been pulling a fast one on me—devious child, that—but… who knows? I use both versions these days.

    Uncle J — that, in fact, is only a subset of the phenomenon I’m describing, and therefore not the word I’m looking for.

    Kaichu — I am actually pretty low on the determinedlyobsceneshona. And yes, I grant that you are past mistress at that. Construing something perfectly innocent as something extremely obscene, however: We’re BOTH goddess of that one.

    Thalassa — we should compile and compare lists 🙂 Oh, and the mistake is mine. I have no idea why I (repeatedly) wrote gilaaf in the post. Lihaaf is what I heard (instead of “lakh koi”). One of those unaccountable errors. Thank you 🙂

    Hri — yes, we do rather contribute to the local entertainment, do we not? On the other hand, you are the rare few who fully appreciate it. What is drama-queenery and craziness without an appreciative audience?

    Insi–tell now!

  6. lovely piece. i think i might suffer from a similar (slightly milder) form of the same malady.
    for the longest time i sang the belinda carlisle song as “blue heaven is a place on earth” (it’s actually OOH, heaven is a place…”
    but think about it. blue heaven sounds so much more fascinating and aspirational. ooh heaven is just lazy song writing!
    keep mishearing. things sound better!

  7. I verily believe your prim little cousin was wrong, and you were right.

    At least her version doesn’t explain the rest of the poem, which goes thus:

    Little Bo-peep fell fast asleep.
    And dreamt she heard them bleating;
    But when she awoke, she found it a joke,
    For still they all were fleeting.

    Then up she took her little crook,
    Determined for to find them;
    She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed.
    For they’d left their tails behind them.

    It happen’d one day, as Bo-peep did stray
    Under a meadow hard by,
    That she espied their tails, side by side,
    All hung on a tree to dry.

    She heaved a sigh, and wiped her eye,
    And over the hillocks went stump-o;
    And tried as she could, as a shepherdess should,
    To tack again each to its rump-o.

    I insist that trails cannot be hung on a tree to dry. The next time you meet the little one, please to be very condescending 🙂

    • I remember Vishal! He was quite a favourite with a lot of friends — he hosted Disney Hour on DD2, didn’t he? Ah, the good old days of two-channel television. I love this little anecdote, S 🙂


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