The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- To make the elephant breathe again

Last year, in an article on writing in India, William Dalrymple compared our regional literatures to the elephant being touched by blind savants, their sightless groping yielding no proper description or definition. Dalrymple's argument went something like this: for sure, Indian vernacular literature exists but, till there are decent translations, the rest of the world can only imagine the existence of this creature, can only grasp a few extremities and make guesses as to what the whole shape might be.

Sadly, it is a fair enough point: the continuing dearth of accurate and inspired translations is a scandalous failure in our world of letters. But what is equally interesting in this linguistic zoology is the animal that's even harder to define ' the jumbo variously called Angrezi, Ingreji or Indian English.

To shift metaphors, if we think of language as a light beam, or, rather, of different languages as discreet light beams of varying strength, then, among the ones hitting us at the moment, English is surely one of the strongest, if not the strongest. And, as it touches the jagged crystals, prisms, the semi-opaque windows and brightly reflecting walls of the construct we call 'Indian Society', this light beam refracts, blinds, creates mirages; it illuminates unexpected corners of our inner courtyards even as it throws whole corridors and stairways of memory and affect into the deepest shadow.

Writer Pawan Verma, speaking on a literary panel recently, made the point that there is but a small Indian elite that uses English really well, and uses it as well as anybody in the world; below this elite, however, is a large and growing linguistic under-class that murders English even as it struggles to appropriate it; this vast agglomeration of people come nowhere near grasping English in all its sinuous complexity and yet, simultaneously, they are losing the moorings of their mother-languages. Even as it struggles to rise up through turbulent wind and heavy cloud to the stratospheric calm of 'proper' English, this section is jettisoning the crucial ballast of regional vernaculars, chucking over the side its Hindustani, its Malayalam, its Bangla, Gujarati, Ahomiya, whatever; culturally speaking, a radically expanding mass of young Indian citizens is, in other words, neither ghar ka nor ghat ka.

Again, we may have no choice but to take Verma's point as far as it pertains to the vernacular languages: even as the old texts get buried in obscurity or bad translation, even as the memory-tanks (that provide the fuel necessary for the survival of any language) dry up, there perhaps is a genuine, quotidian, attenuation of our native spoken tongues. An argument parallel to Verma's goes that fewer and fewer people are reading our vernacular literatures because fewer and fewer people are reading vernacular languages, period. That there are fewer and fewer new works being written in vernacular languages for exactly the same reason ' today, it is neither relevant nor exciting for a young person to grab a book written in Urdu or Tamil and devour it. This argument says that if there are thimblefuls of electricity still left in, say, contemporary Bangla and Malayalam, then these are exceptions that prove the rule ' it's only a matter of time before these two languages go the way of the others and crumble under the joint battering rams of English and Computerese.

Not having explored any recent 'bhasha' writing, I am in no position to comment on this. But, is the strange elephant of Ingleesh really trampling through the precious forests of our other languages, even as it gores itself on the sharp bamboo fences of the Elite Plantation' I don't think so. I have a slightly different, a slightly more optimistic take on this, and in the space of this column I can only sketch it out.

The fact is, many interesting alchemies are brewing between the people we call 'Indians' and the language we call 'English'. And not all of them are disastrous. To take the analogy route: it took us nearly a quarter-century to first beat the English at cricket (in England), a further twenty to start doing it regularly, and a further ten to beat them with a team that, in its majority, now comprises of people from 'small towns', that is, not from the metro-elite. In any case, our victories have usually come when the Indian team has found a mix of players: ones who were 'classical', in that they could out-English the England players in their own style (for example, Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Dravid) and ones who dismantled the accepted grammar of the game and wrote scripts unpalatable for the opposition (Chandrashekhar, Kapil Dev, and recently, Dhoni). Similarly, one could argue that as a society we have finally exhumed and cremated the rotting skeletons of Macaulay and Kipling, that we are finally grappling properly with this beast of a language after three hundred years.

This is happening at three levels. First one is, what one can call General-Working-English, with all its seemingly ugly, seemingly hilarious (to the elite only) miscegenation, where the English is bleeding into the most commonest daily speakings just as the other bhashas are counter-bleeding into dinratta English dialogue. At the second level, there's climbing skill-score w/basic 24-7 Ameringlish-computerese, whether equals software programmers, BPO sweat-shoppers selling accent-added voice, or just general dude-ta mainlining on fone txt.

At the third level, the relationship the urban English-speaking 'elite' has had with the language is being interrogated as never before. Traditionally, this elite has been made up of people who have split into two sects: The Baroque-wallas, who could and would do elaborate, maze-like sentences, descriptions, passages, and the Minimalists, whose religion forbade over-complicated prose. But what both have had in common is an abhorrence of 'clumsy' grammar, a repulsion of the dangling preposition, a distaste for metaphors being jumbled and shuffled from paragraph to paragraph, a hatred, in other words, for any writing or speech that strays too far from the basic rules set in place by 19th century Angrezis. These, then, are the people Pawan Verma refers to when he talks about the small set of Indians who can, in the arena of English-deployment, hold their own against anyone in the world. These are also the people from among whom a few are now, slowly, still timidly, but deliberately taking their first steps towards the mysterious, fruit-laden tree of Wrong English.

The Wronglish Tree beckons, exactly why' Because the garden of EngCorrect is now incorrect, a bit over-farmed and sterile, and therefore a bit limiting for our purposes. Let me hasten to clarify that I am not celebrating or recommending an abandonment of all grammatical rules or stylistic convention ' as English disintegrates in the mouth of people like George Bush and, very differently, becomes horribly mangled on the streets of Britain and America, we need the mastery of our classicists, old and new, more than ever, and we need it exactly at that fuzzy LoC between morality and aesthetics. I am suggesting, nevertheless, that we in India, at this moment of manthan, need to take a fresh look at what is correct, at what is allowable and desirable, at what we hang on to and what we throw out from what has been 'given' to us across the centuries. For, it is inevitable that many of the old rules and prose-thetics will become so much mulch in the next decade or so, and, there will be a whole new audience ( read 'readership' of one kind or another) demanding that what they are forging as English be reflected in contemporary writing. Given this is more likely to happen than not, it is unsurprising that some, at least, of the privileged users are leading the way in tampering with the hard-wiring of this particular Elephant.

To repeat, this is no bad thing. If the so-called elite also starts to take on the verbal shorthands, slangs and elegant ruptures of the non-elite and the non-English speakers' English ' while delivering a 'story' that any English reader in the world can follow ' this will only add to the richness of our literature. The trick of course will be to make sure that this incorporation is not merely decorative but robustly woven into the sinews of text and narrative. If this happens, then all kinds of intellectual slot-machines may flood our lap with all manner of psychic silver.

One odd consequence could be that what is best and precious in 'good' Inglish-bhasha might not only be saved but also become more easily accessible to a larger number of Indians. Another shot in the dark: perhaps this expanding of the jumbo-language into a properly Indian one is the fillip required to open the blocked traffic of our translations; if we control our impatiency with chaos and upheaval, then, who knows, by a typically Indian-convoluted route, this Wronglish Tree may even deliver back to us the resuscitated Elephant-fruit of our other languages.

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