Prompt: In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness.” In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
Late summer, 1947. A large group of tired but persevering Hindus trek the plains of Punjab. The India-Pakistan Partition has happened, and the travelers have left their homes in what is now called Toba Tek District, Pakistan to make lives in the new secular Republic of India. They carry their most sentimental possessions: grainy grayscale photographs of their parents, family jewelry, Vedic prayer books. Those who can walk support the elderly and young. The group hears tales of violence against fellow Hindus from daring merchants along their roughly-defined path. The group travels mostly by foot, but occasionally hitches rides on unimaginably crowded, decrepit, disease-ridden trains. It is difficult to keep together in the madness. They see their sacred cows brutally slaughtered and hung-up as they walk—not for meat or necessity, but as symbols of hate. Despair seems to prevail, and faith appears lost, when a strong, newly-married young man looks into the blistering sun above. He straightens his posture, turns to his family walking behind him, and rallies their spirits with one word: jugaad.
Keshav Dev Midha was my paternal grandfather and middle namesake. I never met him—he died before my parents married—but his story lives and affects me every day. My dad has always referred to him as Bauji, a respectful term for one’s father, and the name has stuck with me. Bauji had a high school education (that was considered advanced back then) and was training to be a clerk in his village before the Partition. In all the stories I have heard about Bauji from my dad and uncles, and by deciphering his diary written in scratchy (but neat) Hindi, one Hindi word keeps coming up: jugaad. Jugaad (pronounced with “oo,” long “aa,” and soft “rd” sounds) can most simply be described as a noun meaning a unique solution to a problem of circumstance. On his journey to Delhi, Bauji had to find many jugaads. He continued the philosophy of jugaad in Delhi, and passed it on to my father, whom I learned the concept from.
Bauji and Biji (my grandmother, whom I did meet) grew up in a small village hundreds of kilometers from Delhi, and had no idea how city life worked, especially because so many changes were around them—the British were abruptly packing up after two centuries of rule and leaving chaos in their wake. Bauji and Biji had meager means, but still had more than most people around them. They could have settled in other places further from the center of Delhi and had a larger home. Bauji would have found a different job and the kids would have still gone to school. But they didn’t. In those days, having electrically powered lights was a privilege reserved for three types of people: the rich, the British, and universities. Yet, Bauji and Biji knew that being able to study at night was vital for students to succeed. So, when they were searching for a new home, they made proximity to places of education their priority; the University of Delhi had generators and libraries, and their future kids could study there. Bauji bought a small house half of the size of a tennis court in the 7th district of Old Delhi, and together with Biji raised four children there.
Bauji would find a jugaad to get to his office, so long as his children grew-up close to the University and had the light and a quiet place to study. And he did—for twenty-five years, he walked six kilometers each way to the post office where he worked while my father and his brothers peacefully went to the best schools Bauji could afford and studied at the University. Bauji’s foresight that the best way to ensure greater futures for his children was through academics came true—two of his kids (including my father) earned their doctoral degrees and came to the United States, one in India obtained his master’s and the other his law degree. I am where I am today, and I have the opportunities I have, because Bauji had the courage to say, “kids, you are the future—study hard and make something of yourself—I will manage; I will find a jugaad.”
Jugaad captures a time, a place, a spirit: Bauji tenaciously supporting his family through faith that he would find a solution, through whatever means, to their struggle. Jugaad’s sanctity and background do not travel with it when it is translated. A dictionary reader who stumbles across it while looking for “juggle” or “jumping bean” cannot possibly understand that Bauji and Biji lost their first-born child, the only daughter they would ever have, while walking to Delhi and had to find a jugaad for a Hindu funeral while surrounded by Muslims. Jugaad to me is not a colloquial or a “hack,” as some English dictionaries describe it. Certain words are living and adaptive. Their meaning lies inextricably attached to their native language and the experiences of a people. Jugaad is one of them. I cannot let any opportunity to learn go, because to do so would be to betray the sacrifice of Bauji and his jugaads. I must find unique solutions to problems; I cannot give up when circumstances seem tough. Denoting a word inflicts an artificial limit on its definition and usage—just as the Partition inflicted an arbitrary border on one people.