It had come to us on a long, flat and shiny red box from Manchester. Sanam Sweets. Mithai so gloriously luxurious and thick, with its sweetness so intricately woven with saffron, that one could not find the like of its silk anywhere else, ever. Hence, the delectables had come to us from Manchester.

Ordinarily, hearing the word sanam would conjure to my simple link welding mind the moving image of Rishi Kapoor in a multicoloured sweater, aeroplaning down a snow caked mountain to his chandni (moonlight) and miming, so out of sync it was impressive, to the Bollywood song that would include, as many of them do, the term of endearment: sanam.

‘It means darling.’

Mother would always ponder a little before responding to our linguistic queries, having to approximate the meaning of words we would never have any use for, such as mehbooba, sanam, jaaneman, etc, etc. She would always pause, tap her finger once or twice on the rim of her mug and appear to be scanning handwritten notes suspended invisibly before her, but she always said the same. ‘It means darling.’ Darling. In those moments, we felt a slight twinge of guilt for having unstuck her from her absorbing dose of the des (homeland), forcing her back to the monochrome space of the pardes (foreign land) where it was a motherly duty to translate the meanings of words such as sanam. Of course, back ‘home’, you just knew what it meant, and there was more time for children to go about their own devices and mothers to forego this duty.


So it was the long, flat and shiny red box from Manchester. For the first time, sanam conjured none of the above. This was the first time I had seen it written. It was a large gold foil printed script, as if the knowledge it would cunningly plant on me was a secret message, minor in its immediate importance, regal in the relevance of its existence. The letter Sad, was the traitor. In Urdu, there is little need for distinguishing between the two hissing letters, seen and sad, as the sweetness of this tongue did not allow such discrepancies to round the hollow of the mouth to one as haughtily explosive as that which the sad required. Seen (س) as in ‘sun’ and sad (ص) as in ‘sword’. So where there was a sad, I knew that, in Urdu, it would still be pronounced as a seen, and yet the word itself had to have its origins in Arabic.

My mind set down the peppermint tea and the living room and traveled the regular path from Urdu, through Persian, to Arabic, carrying the word by the scruff of the neck and trying to locate its village of birth, its cause for diffusion, its path of transmission, the basis for its semantic shift… There were several faltering seconds where my internal lexicon refused to open, its pages congealed in a sweat of panic and obstinate denial. Sanam! Singular of Asnām! Idol!

صنمٌ اصنامٌ    sanam pl. asnām idol, image

(Upon the authority of Hans Wehr, Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Ed., Cowan, J. M., 1976)

Rishi Kapoor was running faster now, his smile stretched, frozen, insane. His heroine stood someway down, twirling her birdlike drapes of ludicrously thin cloth and as they met, they stepped into matching choreography of shimmying asymmetrically back and forth, miming, ‘Oh my idol, I swear by you…!’

Who had authorized this semantic triple jump? Where could I contact this person? It seemed pointless to direct my anger at what was, probably, the long buried bones of an unknown community of well intentioned individuals living at one end of a river which carried the trade of goods and words. I already knew the depth and vastness of Arabic words, roots and devices in Urdu. It had, after all, been me who insisted that Urdu was, in fact, an Arabic dialect. But the deceit had directed me towards a filing cabinet, where all the words I had not suspected, sat row after row in alphabetical order, now guilty until proven innocent, awaiting their final destination in my minds linguistic family tree.


However, the threat of the sad, and at least nine other letters of similar status, takes a backseat as the matter of the disguised idol elbows its way to the front of the theatre and the lights dim for it to take the spotlight at centre stage. Take the example of a High Street North in East Ham, or any street laden thick with masjids and temples, on almost every corner, facing one another in somber reserve: to you is your faith and to me is mine, and notice how, just after noon on a Friday, you will see the sight of flowing robes, thawbs, dotis and jeans; headcaps, beards, white face paint and red dots; you will see how they eagerly make pace to worship an omnipotent force, in truth unbound by tangible form, the ultimate brewing entity. Eagerness and passion. Submission of the will to the highest conceivable force.

Surely, discerning between the breakable and the divine brewing entity, much beyond our comprehension,  is just the beginning, immeasurably essential, but just the start. The nature of disguised idols, that which causes one to compromise his covenant, are unique for every individual. Usually, it’s just money. Whatever they are, they are on the prowl in ones personal space. Seriously, on the prowl.

[Thank you to Oz, Hafsa, K, HMH, Imran, Bobby, Rieanne, Omar and Luqman for your comments.]