1. properly or perfectly done, constructed, etc: a pukka road
2. genuine: pukka sahib [from Hindi pakka firm, from Sanskrit pakva]
By the time you begin reading this, I’ll be a pukka South Indian in sultry Chennai gorging on dosas and drinking filter coffee at least two or three times a day. Correction: I’ll be a pukka Tamilian wearing a silk-cotton sari and two strands of jasmine in my hair, bathing twice a day and spewing magma and obscenities at the sweltering heat of July.
But I’ll also be a pukka American yelling at my dad for always secretly attempting to conserve electricity and turning off the air-conditioner whenever I slip away from the living room to go to the loo. And then he will admonish me in his soft voice, calling me a pukka hypocrite because I talk about eco-this and eco-that but don’t live up to my ideals when it comes to my personal comfort. And then he’ll “drive that needle into the banana,” as they say in Tamil, and accuse me of being a warmonger in his peaceful home. He’ll add that I have the mentality of a foreigner and that I’ve lost all sense of proportion and that he’s after all only a retired accountant in his twilight years, a poor man with thickening arteries and diminishing hearing even though he may have a 15,000-Rupee fancy hearing-aid, and that his monthly expenses are over 10,000 Rupees and that he cannot “ever swell more than his finger,” a Tamil expression which means one must live within one’s means.
“The problem is you have become a pukka foreigner,” he’ll say at the end of it all and sigh, and sink back, with a puppy dog expression, into the rattan chair with a ratty cushion that hasn’t been changed since my mother left it for yet another chair beyond the pearly gates. Then, in minutes, I’ll feel like a pukka idiot because my 87-year-old dad is all I have left of my flesh and blood, aside from my sister, of course, and there’s really no point yelling at a man who knows even as well as I do that Yama is hurtling down in a high speed Japanese style bullet train to get him and transport him to some place where he won’t even get his morning coffee, much less The Hindu, have a valet, a cook or a job that will pay for his car and his petrol.
While dad is reading his newspaper with pretend-or-real-puppy-dog-glumness, the doorbell will ring and Geetha, his cook, will be at the door and I’ll ask her to please make me a pukka Kerala meal with a lot of coconut and she will nod and dash in and out of the kitchen at jet speed. Just before she walks out after cooking the day’s lunch, she’ll tell dad that she’s about to leave and that everything in the kitchen is clean and that she has left it in a pukka way and dad will dismiss her absently.
But dad’s driver, Vinayagam, the other Ganesha in our home—who may soon have his own altar given how he’s worshipped by my dad, my sister and the rest of my extended family—will raise a “really, lady?” eyebrow and he will go into the kitchen after she leaves and look at the state in which she left it and say “Yenna, saar? Geetha calls this pukka?
This is not pukka, saar. Watch me make it pukka, saar. You’re paying her all this money. For what? Pukka, she says. Pukka.” And he’ll continue sniping and griping, wiping the kitchen slab three more times, ranting all the while that the word “pukka” has lost all meaning in this godforsaken world. Vinayagam’s concerns may not be unwarranted because the meaning of the word does indeed celebrate truth.
Pukka, in Hindi, means genuine, authentic; also, first-class.
In Hindi and Urdu, pukka means cooked, ripe, solid, from the Sanskrit word “pakva.”
I found out, however, that what was considered pukka could, in fact, be a dupe. The British used the word “pukka” in a slang expression that meant “true gentleman” or “excellent fellow.” “Pukka sahib” was used to describe Europeans who had an attitude which British administrators affected, that of an “aloof, impartial, incorruptible arbiter of the political fate of a large part of the earth’s surface.” George Orwell burrows into the mind of such a sahib in Burmese Days.
“You see [English] louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honorable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied and exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of taboos.”
In his essay, Shooting an Elephant, Orwell spells out what it means to maintain “the pose” of a pukka sahib. “A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
And so, as Vinayagam might say, what’s supposed to be “pukka” is, in fact, quite often, not “pukka.” All you have to do to prove that is to go to a shoe store in a forgotten alley in India. If you are wondering whether the shoe you’re looking at is really a Nike and the vendor says, “Yes, madam, pukka Nike,” stop and reflect. Chances are the imposter you’re holding is a Nikc.
Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga. To read more about her, go tohttp://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.