Mind your language. Mind it, I say!

Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor (1964).
Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) coaching Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) in My Fair Lady

 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. Genesis 11:1–9.

According to the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, there are 22 languages officially listed and recognised in India. Unofficially, other sources credit our polyglot nation with figures running into well over a staggering 1500 languages, but this is almost certainly a gross misinterpretation that includes derivatives, dialects and local patois that differ from district to district and sometimes, even from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in the same town or city. Biblical references to the Tower of Babel only partially tell us why the world is possessed of so many linguistic variations, though India is not, unsurprisingly, included in its theological proclamations. Small wonder then, that ‘the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth.’ Without getting into a needless mental twist over it, we will accord due respect to our Constitution and stick to the stated 22 languages which, quite honestly, should be enough to be getting along with.

My current focus however, is not so much to get into the nitty-gritty of the intricacies and nuances of India’s linguistic multiplicity, but to take a somewhat left field, light hearted look at how English is spoken in different parts of our country, and how certain English phrases and expressions have been given a uniquely Indian flavour, which owes much to the idiosyncrasies of a particular regional tongue, as it could be Tamil, Bengali or Hindi, to cite three examples I am familiar with. The exercise here is to highlight some of the more commonly heard Indo-English phrases, a kind of pidgin combo, that tellingly mark out a person as hailing from this or that state. To give you a sampler, I might add that even the word ‘hailing’ which I just employed in the previous sentence is more commonly used in India (in that context), particularly in the south, than even in the United Kingdom. For instance, if you approached Mr. Ramaswamy from Tamil Nadu and ask him where he comes from, more often than not he is likely to respond by saying, ‘Sir, I hail from Madurai.’ The pride conveyed in pinpointing the place of origin in his voice is unmistakable. What’s more, Mr. Ramaswamy is likely to sniff in a superior manner if you told him you ‘hail’ from neighbouring Dindigul. As for my Bengali dentist, Mr. Ghosh, he would probe into my cavity with a sharp, pointy instrument and inquire solicitously if I felt any ‘pen’ and proceed to write out a prescription with his Sheaffer fountain ‘pain.’ Altogether a most ‘penful’ experience.

With that brief background let us dive headlong into our subject matter. A caveat. This is by no means an exhaustive or comprehensive list (none exists, as far as I know). Au contraire, they are merely turns of phrase or expressions taken arbitrarily out of my own memory bank. It can only be roughly representative. I have selected three languages to illustrate the essence of this piece – Bengali, Tamil and Hindi. I am sure you, dear reader, can add your own list culled from your personal experience. That said, here goes nothing.

Although born into a Tamil speaking family, I spent close to five decades in the mock-modestly named City of Joy – Calcutta. The steaming, teeming metropolis has now been officially accorded its original Bengali moniker, Kolkata, but I make no apology for referring to it as Calcutta, or even the colloquially anglicised, Cal. Old habits die hard. One of the many joys of living in that vibrant city is that you have no option but to learn to speak Bengali. A Dada ektu please here, a Dada khoob dhannobad there, they all add up and contribute towards keeping the wheels of progress well oiled. After all, even the regal former Indian cricket skipper (potentially a future Chief Minister), Sourav Ganguly, was known the world over as simply, Dada.  (Geoff Boycott has sole rights to the sobriquet, ‘The Prince of Calcutta.’)

A majority of the non-Bengali population who lived and worked in Calcutta spoke the local lingo with varying degrees of competence. A peculiar avenue of pleasure was to listen to the average Bengali, not the burra sahib corporate type who wined and dined at the upper-crust Bengal Club and spoke the Queen’s English while spearing into his grilled salmon. Rather, I am speaking of your everyday Bengali babu sitting behind a grimy, termite ravaged table in a bank, post office or even an advertising agency, often clad in the traditional dhuti panajbi. This sturdy son of the soil was never happier than when showing off his unique brand of English, while helping himself to a paper bag full of jhal muri (spiced puffed rice), dragging on a Charminar, swatting flies and keeping his perspiration under control with his hand held bamboo fan and a moist hand towel – all the while shaking his legs and even his entire body in a furious metronomic rhythm, a typically unconscious, nervous habit that evidently aids concentration!

Here’s the bank clerk – ‘Ore, Shubromonyom Saheb, please wait moshai! It is only ten phiphtin am. Will phinish my cha and carrom board game. You want Passh Book aapdate? Shamay laagbe. Reelax. You want matka cha? Bhery bhery teshty. Why you must hurry burry? Taara kisher? Always you want to raan raan raan. Ektu boshun. Read Teshmann pepper. Gabhashkar century mereche, aar Bishonath wattay stylish tharty phor, umpire phaltu elbeedubloo diyeche, shuar ka baccha! Tomorrow, amader jamai babu, Prosonno bowling korben. Daroon oph- speen bowler, saala.’ (Note: Prasanna was married to a Bengali which gave him special bragging rights in the affections of the Bengali populace).

My advertising agency Studio Manager – ‘Mister Shuresh Babu, what you are thinking? This is joke or what? Why you are so narvaas? You are saabmitting requisition today and you want phinished artwork tomorrow? Baa, baa, khoob bhaalo. I am not P.C. Shorkar for doing magic. What? Client is souting? You tell client, “Baadi jao.” What she is thinking about himself? Saala! Ek second. Oueels Filter aachhe? Give me two, bhaalo chhele. Khoob cheshta korbo my lebhel best to give artwork tomorrow.’

Two Wills Filter fags and you were home and dry. You would have observed that my ad agency studio manager had problems distinguishing the genders when speaking in English. This is a characteristic trait in Bengal. They get the ‘he’ and ‘she’ mixed up, primarily because the Bengali language does not make the distinction. Their gender is neutral, hence the confusion, which manifests itself when they speak English.

When it comes to Tamil, my mother tongue, I have always been grateful to my parents that they insisted on their children conversing in Tamil at home, as far as possible. I emphasise this because my younger brother and I spent much of our childhood in a predominantly English speaking boarding house, and left to our devices, we might have paid scant attention to Tamil. My older brother had no such issues since he grew up in Madras and was fluent in the local lingo. That said, your average Mr. Everyman in Tamil Nadu, possessed a strange penchant for injecting his Tamil sentences with a generous dose of his own brand of English. From the bus conductor who signals his driver to move on with a stentorian ‘Right, right,’ to the classic ‘Romba thanks,’ which is an indelible part of our lexicon.

Our General Physician, Dr. Srinivasan – ‘Hullo, young man. Enna problem? Stomachaa? Loose motionaa? Open your mouth, aaaaa kami. Good. Feverish? No? (places thermometer under my tongue, and hums a snatch of Bhairavi while waiting). Mild joram. Slight infection irukku. Nothing to worry. Strict diet for three days, okayaa? Plenty of fluids and buttermilk, seriyaa? Entero Quinol tablet prescribe pannaren. You can go.’ (As I leave, the good doctor begins to render, under his breath, Tyagaraja’s immortal Entero Mahanubhavulu in the raga Shree).

My father, a scrupulously upright banker (pouring his woes to my mother) – ‘That union leader Brahma, avan oru suddha blackguard! He should be called Brahmmahatthi. Cantankerous madayat*. 20% bonus declare pannalenna strike threaten pannaran, bloody fool of an ass. He thinks he is a periya pista, arrogant fellow. Mannangatti. Tomorrow naan Chairmana confront panna poren. He should be sacked, this Brahma idiot, illenna ennoda resignation letter readiyya irukku.’ (*Madayat, an ingenious combo of ‘madayan’ and ‘idiot,’ both meaning the same thing.)

At which point, my mother’s face turns ashen and she hares off to the kitchen, before the milk boils over.

To conclude, a brief look at our rashtra bhasha. Many regions, notably from the south, railed against the imposition of Hindi as the national language, but over time, they have all come to accept it as a necessary evil. Stands to reason. You can’t go around enjoying the antics of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, keep singing Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar hits on social media, and not accept the language. Once again, I turn to my departed father. Despite his lengthy innings in Calcutta, there was no way he was going to learn to speak Bengali. That said, for the sake of survival, he was more than willing to struggle gamely with Hindi, grammar can take a back seat. And the devil take the hindmost! Here he is, taking our Bihari driver to task in chaste Hinglish! Shades of Mehmood in Padosan.

‘Again, tum itna late aata hai. Humka office meeting mein bahut delay ho gaya. Aisa karne se kaisa hoga? This is not good, Mr. Shiv Prasad, acchha nahin, bahut karaab. Punctuality bahut important. Once more aisa karne se strong action lena padega. Yeh final warning. Tum jaa sakta.’

That was about as tough as my father got with the domestics. The ultimate irony of all this is that most Indians will look askance at you should you attempt to speak proper English. As for those ne’er do wells who keep mocking me for employing words and phrases that are rarely used and bracketing me with the bombastic Shashi Tharoor, my stinging riposte is, ‘The words and phrases are there, somebody’s got to use them.’ I’ll leave the final word to Shaw’s immortal creation, Professor Henry Higgins –

Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning
The Hebrews learn it backwards
Which is absolutely frightening
But use proper English and you’re regarded as a freak

If that makes me a freak, so be it. As my Bengali bank clerk might have pithily put it, ‘What goes my father, saala!’

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. This is what we call unity in diversity. Finally a Bengali could convey what he wants to convey to a Madarasi


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