By Bikram Vohra
More people speak English in India than in any other country. We speak Dickensian English. We can chat in fruity Etonian English. We can make Winston’s stirring speech come off pale and milky and can fling the Wren & Martin grammar book at any native English speaker (since writing is not their forte) with aplomb and destroy them with a deep dissertation on past participles and ‘clause’ analyses, parts of the language that have no relation to the fat man coming down the chimney once each year. We can even imitate cockney and Geordie and at a pinch go American or Aussie on the world.
We have given so many words to the English language. Chukker. Jodhpurs. Gymkhana. Cashmere. Bungalow. Verandah. Chutney. Avatar. Loot. Jungle. Juggernaut. It’s a long and colourful list. Besides, there’s the inspiration for the 007 tune, Miss Moneypenny. Indeed, we can roll our vowels like Dame Judy Dench and give the king’s speech a run for its money.
But it is nothing compared to the way we have wrestled the language to the ground and created a fourth dimension that is so indigenous that it supersedes our great Indian nod which is a visual language that only a fellow countryman can fully understand. Yes, no, maybe, no way, are you kidding, okay sure, why not, all for it — every one of these stances is underscored by a specific shake of the head so subtle in difference that no one else can even begin to figure out what we mean.
We have created words that have so much depth and meaning and bring great joy to us because they exemplify our mindset and our national work and play ethos, not to mention our lifestyle. We communicate at a whole other level. Here are my favourite words.
Timepass. Tops my list. It has such an indolent, casual attitude to the minutes being massacred, a delightful volunteering for the consecration of mediocrity. This book, that film, the lunch, all of them were below par by themselves but good enough to let the day turn to night. What better review of the event or performance or the folks you were with than to label it as timepass? Think of any other word in English that comes even close to encompassing this indictment. Passing the time doesn’t have the cruel and honest pizzazz of timepass which even includes a hint of apology in it.
Then we have bindaas. It is the way you say it. With a vocal liberty, he’s a bindaas guy, she’s bindaas. There is a cadence to it, that a ‘free spirit’ cannot match nor quite capture the nonchalance of the ‘who cares’ approach.
Our aggression also has a special texture to it. Take gherao and bandh. Both words are again visual and indicate exactly what is happening. The shops have downed shutters and the Minister has been put to the sword, he isn’t going anywhere. You cannot begin to compare gherao with surround or encircle. Gherao has all the elements: outrage, disappointment, intimidation, protest, you name it.
Take homely. We are the only nation in the world that equates homely with virtue and loosely use it to mean beautiful, chaste, obedient, houseproud, accomplished, fair complexioned, in any combination or all of these and more. We would not use it to mean frumpy, dull, plain or unattractive.
Even subconsciously, we create words that are Freudian in meaning. Take scheme. We use it to indicate a project or an enterprise and since we are pretty much certain that there is some hanky panky going on, we cheerfully have transferred the corruption into the initiative. Ergo, we scheme when we launch them. Others have programmes or undertakings.
Off and on, we mangle the language beyond belief and even the mashed outcome is validated. When we use the phrase ‘too good’ it is not saying better so much as emphasising the superlative. Too good is indicative of surpassing your best and making the recipient unworthy of such exceptional effort. The purist will cringe but that vanilla cake was too good, did you make it, awesome.
We have taken ‘awesome’ to another level entirely and the way we stress a syllable changes its meaning, covering delight, mystery, intrigue, incredulity, wonderment, a comprehensive seal of approval.
Some of our inclusions or creations are riveting. Take the way we have so incorrectly gone with ‘doing the needful’ as opposed to what is necessary. No one else can do the needful except us. By the same token we ‘revert back’ which is okay and the heck with those who catch you on it but the clarity that comes with ‘this is my real sister’ as opposed to false cousins is a beauty. No, no, no, the one on the right in the snap is my real brother, younger, the one on the left is second cousin or better still and woefully wrong, cousin brother.
When you are eating my head and not hearing me when I want you to adjust to the situation I am giving you strict warning you will not pass out if you don’t start mugging, what you need is a tight slap, na, you will never be foreign returned. Now off the TV and on the light and study hard.
But don’t laugh. There are so many of us, we have the power. We have just managed to make prepone an accepted word in the dictionary. That is just a start. Tomorrow, chalta hai will also make the grade.
Bikram is former editor of KT.
Everyday humour is his forte