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A woman sitting in a chair at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur, India. Photo by Eliana Rothwell (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist).

Ghee Naheen: Lost in Translation

Today marked the start of our fourth week in India. As we continue our journey through the northern state of Uttarakhand, along the way meeting people from all walks of life, we travel equipped with simple Hindi phrases: haan (yes), naheen (no), aap kaa naam kyaa hai (what is your name?), ye kyaa hai (what is this?), and bahut acchaa (very good), as well as the names of the colors and the numbers one through ten. While useful, they only help in moving a conversation so far along, and fail to express more complex ideas. Conversations with the locals often require us to revert to the universal language of charades, and to hope for the best.

For the past week we have called the Himalayan village of Sarmoli in Munsyari our home. On the first day, we had the opportunity to venture through the village market and find lunch without instructor guidance. We confidently sat down at a small, roadside restaurant, prepared for the challenge ahead. While we couldn’t read the menu, the word for one dish on the menu looked familiar to us, so we settled for aloo parathas (flatbread stuffed with potato), often cooked in butter. Using phrases like ghee naheen (no butter), paneer naheen (no cheese), and doodh naheen (no milk), along with English phrases hopelessly thrown in with strange hand signals, Stav attempted to express his dairy allergy and to request an oil-cooked paratha. The cook smiled and gave a nod of understanding, and we awaited our food drinking tea and admiring the lively streets and their great Himalayan backdrop.

Ten minutes had passed when two large plates of golden-brown parathas stacked high arrived from the kitchen. As per Stav’s request of dairy-free parathas, our delicious ghee-cooked aloo parathas were quickly followed by a platter of three sticks of butter, diced, and five cups of yogurt. That day, we paid 170 rupees in dairy products alone. One silver lining to our dairy miscommunication: having unknowingly ordered aloo parathas cooked with hot peppers, the yogurt provided some relief as it was guzzled down by the rest of us. What happened to the mass of butter remains a mystery.