Posts Tagged ‘language’

Doing the needful

Posted: April 1, 2012 in ivory tower musings
Tags: , ,

Bahai Bahai baby

Hannah and I have tinkered with the space-time continuum to keep you updated and mildly entertained while we voyage. By the time you read this, we’ll be over in the east, visiting (we hope) Calcutta, Darjeeling, and Sikkim…

A few days ago at the Bahai Lotus Temple (left), I suddenly realised I’ve forgotten how to speak English—or at least British English. Gesturing towards the shoe storage hut with a pair of leopardprint pumps, I said brightly, ‘Shall I do the needful?’

Hannah, within whom a thwarted Rajocrat’s heart beats, looked at me with incomprehension—and dawning horror. It’s finally happened: my mind has been colonised. I’ve gone native. (In fact, as you’re reading this, I’ll be on a Kurtz-like rampage through the hill stations as Hannah tries desperately to re-imperialise my twisted psyche.)

An old favourite, Hampi

Indian English—or ‘Hinglish’, as it’s somewhat pejoratively called—is a big flabby mixed-race beast, evolving at a high speed like some precocious but maddening elephant-headed toddler. The subcontinent’s languages are perhaps unusually open to outside influence: as David Bellos points out in his idiosyncratic book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, ‘there is no tradition of translation in India’. Instead, everyone simply grows up speaking three, four or five tongues, including the huge ‘vehicular’ languages of Hindi (800 million users globally), Urdu (180m), Bengali (230m), English (between 800 and 1,800m depending how puritanical you’re feeling), and a handful of others. Many people flexibly use vocabulary and grammar from each and can communicate surprisingly well with distant others—as Christopher Columbus probably did in Eurasian ports with his motley collection of Italian, Castilian, Portuguese, Arabic syntax, Greek, and Latin.

Sceptics might complain. Everyone back Home has experienced Bangalore’s unconvincing call-centre staff ‘Sally’ and ‘Mike’, with their comments on the weather in Basingstoke and last night’s X Factor. Academics, on the other hand, are climaxing over every recondite phrase and casual Hindi intrusion.

In the midst of this—and living in a francophone flat—I feel like an elephant in a beauty pageant. So here is a short guide:

Rule 1: Everyone trusts a Britisher. Indians buy British much more enthusiastically than Gordon Brown ever dreamed: booze from the ‘English wine shop’, ‘English drugs’ from the chemists, and biscuits advertised by depressingly white-skinned people laughing about dogs. Sure, the Brits might have sneakily partitioned the subcontinent and massacred a few hundred here and there, but they’re just so lovable when they look up at you with their big wet overbred eyes, unlike your sly bobble-headed countrymen—and you can be sure the products are safely made in Guangzhou. And if no English word covers the concept you’re going for… invent a new one!

e.g. Try latest timepass only: how good is your eyes? Girl, 29, convent-educated, foreign-returned, single and innocent, wheatish complexion, seeks a suitable boy, caste and creed no bar. Coca Cola…yehi hai right choice baby! 

Rule 2: And if in doubt, go for the Queen’s English. By queen, of course I mean Victoria; Betsy II really has cheapened the lingo with her ridiculous yoot slang and constant gangsta namechecking.

e.g. Do not pluck the flowers outside that laundry cum guard carriage—I must go and bathe!

Rule 3: Want to sound modern and go-getting? Then spice up that Queen’s English with some sexy businessisms! They may be the aesthetic equivalent of bludgeoning to death a Corgi, but hey, that’s capitalism.

e.g. Please revert the letter, and we’ll prepone the meeting while you deboard the train.

Rule 4: India is special, with advantages and problems utterly unlike those in the rest of the world. This must be linguistically stressed wherever possible.

e.g. Theft is far more innovative than the poor old Brits could manage, as we see from ‘Frequent dacoities and looting of fish from bheris in the Sonarpur area’. Indian politics are also exceptional, with their own special varieties of strikes and protests (bandhs, hartals, gheraos), villains (goondas and badmashes), melodrama (tamashas and dramabaazi), and dodgy demagoguery (tax sops for aam admi).* 

Fortunately, there is no sexual harassment in India, only ‘Eve-teasing’. New university students aren’t savagely tortured by their contemporaries, but given a traditional welcome ‘ragging’. Police violence is usually confined to the charmingly rustic ‘lathi charge’, which sounds like a particularly enthusiastic variant of the Hokey Cokey. And in my own field I can confirm luckily there are no blackouts or electricity theft in India, but mere ‘loadshedding’ and ‘heavy AT&C losses’.

There is one problem I never realised I had before I arrived here, though—one so terrible that advertising girls have tears in their eyes and transnational corporations are forced to step into the breach. I am talking, of course, about Hair Fall. Previously I’d laboured under the misapprehension that the human head naturally shed 150+ hairs a day, but now I understand that I am in fact part of a feral, balding underclass. Truly, where would we be without Hinglish?

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* India nerds—you know who you are—should also check out Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exasperated ‘A Dictionary for Our Times’, Pts I and II.

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