Many a slip
It’s not just the British and Americans who are divided by a common language. Linguistic chasms also extend along India’s faultlines of class and culture, explaining why the word “maximum” appears to be a sticking point in the argument over Singur. While maximum is a relative term in English, the largest possible within given parameters, colloquial Bengali treats it as synonymous with humongous, the American composite of huge and enormous.
Rabindranath Tagore dwelt on differences in nuance between English words and their Bengali equivalents — like “consciousness” and chetana, or “feeling” and anubhuti. But some words take on an altogether different meaning when used by different nations. The extreme case of the English schoolmaster who when asked by an American if his boys were allowed dates replied “Certainly, if they eat them in moderate quantities” is not an apposite example for they had different dates in mind. The French boeuf (ox) is more pertinent for it becomes the meat (beef) in English. Outdoor servants, being Anglo-Saxon after 1066 and all that, used the English word for cattle while meals were prepared and served by French domestics. Not all changes are so logical. Nor is maximum the first word to precipitate a political crisis. Greatly put out by being called “a spare man” in the Times newspaper, Anna’s King of Siam thought the reference to his lean figure meant he was redundant and was not mollified until the British ambassador denounced in a banquet speech anyone who dared claim Siam had a spare monarch.
It’s not always easy to say whether the perceived insult is intended or a result of linguistic inadequacy. But it is unlikely that any semantic sophistication prompted Mamata Banerjee to accuse Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee of defaming Gopalkrishna Gandhi. True, the chief minister’s “I thank him for whatever he has already done” sounded grudging and ungracious, implying that the governor had done little or nothing. But since Bhattacharjee’s foreign language skills are in Russian, we must give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that what he really meant was, “I thank him for all/everything he has already done.”
The syntactic confusion recalled my Chinese students in Singapore. “All have not handed it in,” the class monitor would announce when no one submitted the set exercise. I assumed the phrase was an unconscious literal translation from Hakka or Hokkien like the students’ disregard of gender and tense. It was fun comparing their idiom with ours, but a substantive difference was noticeable. While no Singaporean is ashamed of the mix and match of Singlish despite the government’s Speak Good English Campaign (“Aiyah, gar’men say Singlish not good, must learn how to spiak good English! How can?”), an Indian is insulted if his English is thought to be Indian. “We are speaking Queen’s English, isn’t it?” Unaware of this complex, Lee Kuan Yew thinks India should standardize its variant of English and make it the national language to eliminate regional friction and achieve greater cohesion. Another difference is that a Singaporean who speaks impeccable Queen’s English in his formal intercourse sees nothing amiss in lapsing into Singlish when excited or with his cronies.
Considering everything, we haven’t done too badly in India, especially in Bengal, excavating and breathing life into semantic antiquities that would otherwise have been lost. Job applicants who flaunt their “BA plucked” status go back to the middle of the 19th century. Like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman who was surprised to learn he had been talking prose for forty years without knowing it, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh’s “doing the needful” in the Billy Bunter stories resuscitated an early 18th century usage. Mutts and dunderheads still flourish in Anglo-Indian schools. Indian English is England’s stately past.
Inventing new meanings is another matter. The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms were so unpopular that “You are a dyarchy!” became fighting words in Burma. But the strong umbrage taken at a mild interjection like “nonsense” passes comprehension. An Englishwoman of my acquaintance who dismissed as nonsense her taxi-driver’s demand for the return fare from the Tollygunge Club on the grounds that it lay outside city limits was roundly rebuked, “Nonsense bonsense nai bolo. British Raj khatam ho gya!” But this is also a class thing and Indians from other parts of the country who know that nonsense is a red rag to the Bengali bull are unaware that the word loses all offensive taint higher up the social scale. A visiting Parsi who asked her fashionable Bengali hostess if she regarded “nonsense” as a bad word was taken aback by the latter’s surprised “What nonsense!” The matter ended there but the Parsi mind was ticking over, wondering whether or not to be angry since her hostess had used what she assumed was a typically Bengali pejorative.
Speaking many years ago at Secunderabad’s Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages on editing an English-language newspaper in India, I recalled having to explain to young journalists that a district is a geographical term and does not always have to have a collector or magistrate. I also recalled trying to stress the inappropriateness of writing juggernaut in the archaic English sense of an unstoppable force that crushes all obstacles. “James Cowley uses it,” the reporter protested, referring to the paper’s elderly London correspondent. When I said that was Anglo-Indian usage, the surprised young man asked, “Cowley is Anglo-Indian?”
Another increasingly common word that makes me cringe is babu, a term of the most profound respect in all Indian languages that colonials turned into a figure of scorn. Today, all newspapers (including, alas, this one) ape the 19th century British and speak glibly of babus and babudom for the bureaucracy, little realizing that the practice mocks all educated English-speaking Indians. Imperial English similarly transformed bintun, Arabic for a perfectly respectable girl, into “bint”, meaning an easy lay. Unlike “smart” Indians, no self-respecting Arab would dream of following slavishly in the footsteps of those who insult his culture and abuse his language.
India’s revolutionary inventiveness is not all anachronism and eccentricity. Laced into it is also an element of shrewd calculation. Harijans (until they too were banned as politically incorrect) and Dalits are the ultimate in euphemism. Quick to follow the official lead, newspapers have also banished famine: crops might fail and people starve but we suffer only scarcity. Terrorists are gentrified into anti-socials. Muslims are depersonalized into the minority, except in Kashmir where the minority is the majority. The police might be ever so slow but always rush to the scene of crime just as politicians always airdash to the capital.
Those who argue for steering clear of the pitfalls of a foreign language when discussing matters of moment cite Winston Churchill’s luncheon for General de Gaulle and his wife at the end of World War II. Asked what she was most looking forward to after returning to France, Madame de Gaulle replied without hesitation, “A penis!” When an astonished Churchill repeated the question, she again replied placidly, “A penis.” The general cut in at that point, “I think, my dear, the English pronounce it ’appiness!”
Some of the friction over Singur might have been avoided if the resolution had retained the original draft’s “maximum extent possible” though even so, there would be nothing to prevent one side claiming 300 acres is possible against the other’s 70. Since politicians are like Humpty Dumpty (“When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean, — neither more nor less”) and speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts, as Talleyrand tells us, a grey area is inevitable in any agreement. But the clarity of the mother tongue might make the disguise less impenetrable than a language that is all things to all men (and women).