Bugged Out

By  John Giammatteo October 4, 2011

One of the first questions I would receive, no matter where I was in Tamilnadu, was if I could speak any Tamil. My reply was always good for a laugh. I’d start with the three words I knew well – vannakkam (hello), nandri (thank you), aamaa (yes) – and whomever I was talking to would let out a chuckle. These were the words any tourist knew, and even though I’d been in the southern Indian state for a nearly month, I hadn’t managed to pick up much more.

After that opening, I’d then make a gesture on my arm, pinching myself and mimicking a mosquito. Coo-suu, I’d mouth, and my companion would almost always erupt with belly-deep laughter.

I had been taught whatever Tamil I could speak at the office where I was interning, at the tail end of a semester abroad. I worked for an organization of Sri Lankan refugees living in India. Hundreds of volunteers, all refugees themselves, worked for the organization throughout the state of Tamilnadu, and I split my time between various field offices and the head office in Chennai. While in Chennai, I slept on the floor of the office with the other young, male volunteers. Each night we’d roll back the office chairs, throw down bamboo mats, and I would methodically set up a mosquito net.

My first morning in Chennai, I lazily rolled over and cleared the sleep from my eyes. My arm and wrist began to itch and I looked down to find a sea of red flesh. Fifty small, red, itchy bumps rose from my skin. Damn, I thought, I must have rolled out of my net last night.

The volunteer sleeping next to me saw me scratching. “Coo-suu,” he said, pointing to my arm.

By the time I had finished my project a month later, I had circumnavigated all of Tamilnadu, formally interviewed 30 refugees, and talked with dignitaries and academics in Chennai. Nearly every night, I was chewed up by the mosquitoes, and I found it an easy way to put people at ease. 

Point to the welts. Bug motion. Coo-suu. Repeat.

A few days before I was supposed to fly back to the States, a new volunteer came to the office. He had just come from Sri Lanka, and so we talked for a long time about the war. Gradually, the conversation turned to personal matters, especially about my life in the U.S. and my trip to India. “Did you learn any Tamil?” he asked. 

“You know, nandri, vannacome, coo-suu.

He stared at me with his mouth open.

“You know, coo-suuuu,” I said, mimicking a bug.

Coh-soooooohhhhh. Coh-Sohhhh. That is mosquito.” The vowel was clearly different from what I had been blindly saying all along to just about everyone I’d met. He brought his hand behind him and gestured as if expelling gas from the seat of his pants. 

“This is coo-suu,” he laughed. “Coo-suu is a very, very bad word.”

By John Giammatteo

This is the winning article from the Verge Storyboard for the week of Oct. 4, 2011. Click here to submit your own story.

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