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  • What an idea, Sirjee!

    Posted On July 30, 2008

    By Karan Thapar

    Have you noticed how acceptable and widely-used English has become? Even when people are speaking Hindi, English words keep popping up. I’m sure this is equally true of conversations in Bengali, Tamil, Telegu, Assamese or Kashmiri. In contrast, hindi purists seem to have faded away. There was a time when the Mulayam Singh Yadavs were sticklers for ‘klisht hindi’; now I can’t remember when he last objected to the use of English.

    My case, however, is established by simply listening to how people speak and pausing to think about the words they use. Consider a few examples. No one – not your mates, nor the sabji-wallah or the taxi driver – reels off their mobile number in hindi. People may still say ‘ikees’, ‘arsath’ or ‘ninyanbe’ but a mobile number is always spelt out in english, regardless of how misleading the pronunciation maybe! Actually, that’s also true of ordinary phone numbers.

    Better still, eavesdrop on conversations and notice how frequently english words crop up. Here’s a selection of sentences I’ve heard in the last week alone: “Aap ke liya message hai”, “Woh hamesha late aatein hein”, “Mujhe medicine leni hei”, “Phir kaam pe no-show hoge’, “Meri salary bahut kum hei”, “Promotion nahin mila”, “Mujhe loan chahiye”, “black aap ko bahut suit karta he”, “uski baby girl hui he”. In each case the English words were used deliberately but they sounded natural. That’s because they seem to fit in, they feel as if they belong.

    Now consider how people describe themselves. When your door won’t shut the guy who’ll come to fix it calls himself a ‘carpenter’. When the tap won’t shut it’s a ‘plumber’, the chap at the gate is a ‘guard’, and your letters are brought by a ‘postman’. ‘Mistri ’, ‘Chowkidaar’ and ‘dakya’, which were common in my childhood, aren’t used anymore. In fact, omnibus english words such as engineer, mechanic and operator are used by hindi-speakers to describe a variety of professions; only the bijleewala stays the same! In contrast, certain hindi words like dafter, rasoi, gaddi, kameez and diya-salai have been comprehensively replaced by office, kitchen, car, shirt and matches. In other cases, so common is their usage pant, pen, picture and party have virtually become hindi words!

    Twenty five years ago when my Cambridge chum Satish Aggarwal would call his parents ‘Mumji’ and ‘Dadji’ I would laugh. It seemed such a strange combination of Brit affection and desi respect. Little did I realize Satish was way ahead of his time. Today, young cricketers call Tendulkar ‘Sachin Sir’ whilst junior correspondents call their boss ‘Rajdeep Sir’ and it feels perfectly right. Even ‘Neelu Madam’ and ‘Rinku Madam’ doesn’t raise eyebrows.

    Is this anglicisation?  No, it’s englishification. Although that’s a pretty dreadful word, what it points towards is three important and, I suspect, irreversible facts. First, an increasing number of people are deliberately using english words either because they are better suited to what they want to say or more impressive. Second, modern life-styles encourage people to use modern speech which, simultaneously, sounds casual, cool and cosmopolitan. And English fits the bill. Third, English – or, at any rate, English words – is both the link between different Indians and, paradoxically, the distinction between our use of English and that of the English-speaking world. It cuts both ways.

    However, I would go a step further. The ever-multiplying reliance and acceptability of English shows that we have become comfortable with ourselves and our unique history and circumstances. The colonial hangover which led an earlier generation to protest against English is past and forgotten. We’ve internalized the language. It’s no longer ‘phoren’, it’s become Indian. Second, we’re now sure of our identity. Borrowed phrases or concepts don’t undermine it. In fact, we often prefer foreign words to express ourselves. And, third, being Indian is an umbrella concept, an omnibus idea, it embraces many, often contradictory, qualities and we’ve become well adjusted to and increasingly happy with that.

    Well, what do you say about all this? My answer is: ‘What an idea, Sirjee’

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