Thursday, September 30, 2004

Mil Nam Tom Ka

Virtually from the moment that you touch down in this country, you notice that, as with other places where the language is spoken, India has its own particular brand of English. This is, to some extent, surprising – English is, of course, on one level the language of colonialism, and thus to be eradicated. Gandhi certainly felt that English should not be regularly spoken by Indians, although equally he would not stop anyone from speaking it, and he himself could read, write and speak it very well. A more extreme version of this view that I read one day in The Times of India said “that to educate our children in English is to expose them to lesbianism and free sex.”!!!

What I guess that means is that English is the language of modernity, prosperity, globalism and global media, and call centres (for which adverts are displayed in the street offering to coach people in their accents so that they can get a call centre job – is this the linguistic equivalent of skin-lightening creams?), which are good or bad, depending on your viewpoint.

One of the reasons that India appears to be an attractive destination is its combination of differentness with the English language, the exotic with the familiar: it’s probably for me the most different place that I most wanted to visit where, for a short visit to an urban centre, another language would probably not be required.

And so it is true that I have not needed to speak anything other than English to get by here for 3 months. But it’s also true that despite India’s 1,600 languages and dialects (18 of those languages ‘official’!), a working knowledge of Hindi is very helpful. Even if this extends only to transliterated written or spoken Hindi (untransliterated Hindi is of course in a completely different script, Devanagari, which is also used for Sanskrit), it’s still better than absolutely nothing, which is what I have. Only 3% of Indians have some knowledge of English – according to Mark Tully – and amongst those are some who write exclusively in English. Of course, there is a preponderance of English speakers in urban areas (especially Delhi), and amongst certain social strata (there’s that Delhi word again) or classes.

For example, the majority of the streetchildren that I meet speak no English – although a couple who speak a bit have tried to teach me some Hindi, with very limited success (the title this week is one of the few things that’s stuck, so I hope it’s correct!). And it has to be said that most autowallahs and ordinary people in general have very little English, words or phrases only – more than the amount of my Hindi!!! However, knowing Hindi is no panacea for travelling around India, as the number of those languages and dialects tells you. The girls from Chennai who came to the meetings that I attended in June spoke only Tamil, and their adult facilitator had to translate from English to Tamil for them!!!

As Hindi dominates in the north, and is less known in the south, English seems to act as the second language, or common language, for a certain sector of society. And, of course, there are forces which accentuate this, globalisation, universities, and call centres among them.

The rampant and uncontrolled visual pollution in nearly any business or commercial area in Delhi mostly manifests itself in transliterated Hindi – Roman letters – about 50% of the time. So the sign for the street where I catch my bus in the morning, reads “Sansad Marg.” Then, about 30% of signs will be in English – in this case, “Parliament Street”. And, for example, all the painted signs on the outside of buses, trucks and autorickshaws are in English: ‘use dippers at night’, ‘keep distance’, etc. Only 20% will be in Hindi only – for which I can’t give you the example, ‘cause I’d need a Hindi typewriter. There’s a lot of mixing, for which there seem to be no rules. For example, I went to a seminar Wednesday at the India Habitat Centre. The materials were completely in English. The banner in the conference room was all in English, except for a Hindi translation of the sponsoring institution. Of 27 speakers, 25 were Indian – all speakers spoke in English save one, who spoke in Hindi. He was from Bihar, the northern centre of organised crime, mafia dons controlling local commerce, contract killings, and general chaos (a local joke goes that if the Pakistanis so badly want Kashmir, tell them that they can have it if we can throw in Bihar as well!). So you go away thinking, English is the common language here, so I can get on with English.

Then you try to take an auto – oh, by the way, there was an auto strike this week, and it was such a damned shame to do without the autowallahs’ toothy leers and ingratiating manners, “h-e-l-l-o, Sir, where are you going?” – and you find that you just can’t communicate where you want to go. You can’t even communicate that you won’t pay the Rs. 50 that they are asking which, in most cases, immediately drops by 40%. It has to be said that most autowallahs’ English only extends to “100 rupees”, some English place names, and “meter no working”!!! The bus conductors, of course, can make do with “a-delay-a-delay-a-delay-a-delay-‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place!!!!” and, if you listen carefully, some mangled English place names (Green Park Extension is just called Green Park Extension, not anything else).

Or you have an encounter such as I had at my hotel when I arrived back in July. The day after I arrived, sleeping off my jet lag, I heard a knock at 6:10 and opened the door to a swarthy hotel employee:

Me – Hi.
Him – Silence
Me – Can I help you?
Him – It’s 6:10.
Me – I know it’s 6:10. What do you want, please?
Him – Silence
Me – Thanks – I am going back to bed. Goodbye!

So, I recommend that if you do come to a part of India where Hindi is spoken, a bit of Hindi will be most helpful, even if it’s only the phrase book type. However, the drawback is that you may not necessarily be understood even with that. Vijay Nambisan says in his essay “City Without Natives” (in Khushwant Singh’s book City Improbable) that “hardly anyone speaks Hindi in Delhi. It’s Punjabi, or Urdu, or Khadi Boli, or Avadhi, or Rajasthani. I can’t think of any other state capital which doesn’t have a native tongue, though Bangalore is fast going that way.”

Is Indian English another type of English, like American English? It’s at least the standard English with a desi (Indian) twist. Look at any of the 7 or 8 English speaking Indian papers on sale in Delhi (The Times of India, Indian Express, The Hindu, Hindustan Times), and you will find endless examples of the mixing of transliterated Hindi with English. Main hoon na. This Hinglish or Engdi mixing happens all the time – especially in the media, where English words keep creeping into Hindi, and Hindi words or phrases are used in the middle of a paragraph of English, just like that. Many of them, like the one I just used, are from Hindi films or songs. A typical headline in the back of the Times of India will be,“Salman, Sex, Shah Rukh, Success” and, in its usual hopped-up style, it will hype “for the gals, raapchik Arjun Rampal; for the guys, red hot Priyanka Chopra ka chutzpah.”

The other newspapers, by the way, will be in Hindi, or some other language. There are so many Malayalee persons in Delhi, such as my friend Dr. Dilli, that they’ve begun to publish a Malayalam paper here. Dr. Dilli is I guess atypical, in that he’s trilingual in Hindi/Malayalam/English, but knows smatterings of other languages I suspect.

So how does Indian English usage differ from what you know? Well, at the most basic level, in funny and unintended usages that are the stock of any travel book. You know what I am talking about. I haven’t noticed anything as obvious as a restaurant menu with ‘Fried Dirt’ and ‘Rice Cream’ on it (the language was here for quite awhile, after all…), but I have noted the usual errors or mistakes, mildly amusing to language mavens. Here are some, not too many…

When I arrived I saw a sign saying “all photography is permitted inside the immigration area” (surely they mean ‘prohibited’?). And then went through customs and bought my first bottle of water in India, a brand unfortunately named H2GO. I certainly hoped not. And there are a lot of those – I’ve already mentioned the beer brand ‘Knock Out’ which I have yet to try (thank goodness!). And, on my second day on my second trip, I saw a sign on the way from Hauz Khas advertising painting classes, specialising in “fancy marriage packing”! What the hell??? And, going to visit a friend, I saw a restaurant saying, “Spontaneous Food Court” (is this a court for spontaneous food, or do you mean that – at any moment, without warning – the whole restaurant might suddenly turn into a nuclear power plant???).

Some of these are just non-speakers having to use the words – so transport spelling errors are rampant: ‘propelly’, ‘carriagege’, and ‘pailot’ for ‘propelled’, ‘carriage’, and ‘pilot’, ‘flover’ for flyover, ‘undar parmat’ for ‘under permit’, and even “no U trun”. Does nobody check anything here???

Okay, so being serious for a minute, there are some different words and phrases for sure, either home-grown ones such as ‘eve-teasing’ for sexual harassment, ‘yeti’ for “young, e-technologically inspired”, and ‘mixi’ for blender (I like the last one, just as I’ve always admired the German ‘handi’ for cellphone or mobile phone).

A second tendency is to add prefixes or suffixes to words for emphasis. How else do you explain ‘upgradation’ for ‘upgrade’ and ‘intentionality’ for ‘intention’? This extends as well to adding whole words or phrases, so you get double emphasis phrases, such as ‘bubble boom’ (“Experts say Growth of Private Sector Healthcare Isn’t a Bubble Boom”). Is that a bubble or a boom? No, it’s really bad, it’s a bubble boom – is that a bubble that explodes loudly???

Lots of things get abbreviated and, if you’re a foreign reader, you need translations. This happens everywhere of course. But here, the compressing tendency extends to omitting articles and prepositions, thus making the writing appear denuded or a even a descendant of Bernard Shaw’s attempt to simplify English (or perhaps this is only felt by the old-fashioned amongst us who can’t decipher SMS messages!): “if the Great Indian Middle Class, with its unhealthy disdain for public healthcare, is flocking the growing private healthcare sector…”, said The Times of India in its bullshit authoritative voice one day, missing the ‘to’ after ‘flocking’. And, “decisions, however, will come next week after PM Manmohan Singh assesses with Chief Minister the extent of drought. However, watch out the costs.” Eh?

Most of this is harmless, but occasionally it gets in the way of meaning: the weekly Tehelka, a left-wing journal that specializes in exposes, on 18 September had a piece in its column ‘Elsewhere…’ called “Right Wrongs” which showed the Indian penchant for leaving out articles, definite or indefinite: “While the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, makes it mandatory for every state to have a commission, few states in north India, including Bihar, continue to ignore the formation of a state commission.” Surely the writer means ‘a’ few states, not that ‘few’ states are ignoring the Act, which is against his argument!!! Finally, compression means that there’s lots of noun-to-verb migration (someone was described to me as not “under a barrage”, but ‘barraged’ the other day!).

Orally, combined with the Hindi accent, this can make Indian English seem clipped, almost staccato, headache-inducing on the telephone during long conversations. However, with over 1 billion Indians barraging the rest of us with their call centres and outsourcing, who’s to say that Indian English won’t become the standard English?
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Well, now that that’s off my chest, I can explain its relevance by this week’s story about my trip to Jaipur.

I didn’t make it.

As a result, this week’s pictures are a selection of previously unpublished things, including some that I took on Saturday at Gandhi Smriti, where Gandhi was assassinated. To see them, click here.

I went off to Old Delhi Railway Station about 13:45 for the 15:00 train, plenty of time, despite the traffic around Old Delhi. My autowallah asked me where I was going, and I told him Jaipur, so he told me, I will drop you at the Kashmere Gate side, from where the Jaipur trains go. That sounded fine, until you get there, and step off into this…sandpit, looking like the arse end of any railway station anywhere in the world – no marble columns, no chandeliers, no bustling porters, just…Delhi sand, blown in every day from the desert. And a small outbuilding up ahead which looked to be selling tickets – this is Old Delhi station? I can’t believe it…I could see only 2 platforms…one train at one platform. No signs, no information anywhere, not in the outbuilding, not on the platforms. Who to ask? There didn’t seem to be any train staff anywhere…

However, on walking up to the platform end, I espied some steps and, while doing so, I heard an announcement about the train for Jaipur being on Platform 9, in alternate staccato English and Hindi…I headed for platform 9 to check this out. It was about 2:40.

Platform 9 had a train but, similarly, no information. Nothing affixed to the train. No staff. No platform number!!! So I heard the announcement again and then boarded the train and asked someone. They confirmed that the train was for Jaipur. So I sat down and got comfy. I only realized later that the wooden sign affixed to each coach has the train numbers on it for the route…

After a minute or two, a tendril of doubt began to creep over me, so I asked the railway employee getting blankets and pillows out for the sleeping part of the journey if this was the train to Jaipur, and he said yes. So, I sat back and got settled. I got out my book, and then the train started to move. A few minutes early. That seemed odd. Late, yes, but early? As we trundled slowly above the city and over the Yamuna into Noida, East Delhi, and the suburbs, I watched the sights go past slowly – we couldn’t have been going more than 20 m.p.h. at any time – and then settled down to my book when…the conductor came by and looked at my ticket. He then broke the news to me that I was on the wrong train – worse, was going in the opposite direction from the one that I was supposed to be going in!

What on earth can I do? I asked. Well, you can get off at the next station – we’ll be there in 40 minutes or so. Ghaziabad. And then come back to Delhi. You can get 50% of your ticket refunded to you. And Jaipur? Well, you can see if you can get another train when you get back. I sat back, calmly, and thought about it, looking intently at my Indian Railways timetables; there was an 18:00 from some station called Delhi Sarai Rohilla, wherever on earth that was. If I could get that, I could get to Jaipur by 23:30 or so but, in the rush to get to the other station, buy a ticket, find the right train, ringing my accommodation was completely out of the question – I looked at the next train, and that was at 22:50, not arriving until 04:20…the next one was the Shatabdi Express, at 06:15, neither particularly attractive…

So I went back to my book until we seemed to be arriving in our next station – unsigned for the most part, of course, but then finally a limp sign came into view: Ghaziabad. Thank goodness, somewhere I’d heard of, an eastern suburban part of Delhi – in reality, its own city…but featured under the Delhi part of the Times of India today, despite being in Uttar Pradesh, for its 10- to 12 hour power cuts. Luckily, we were arriving in daylight. We’d obviously not travelled very far or very fast in 40 minutes.

As I got up to leave, a group of railwaymen sitting and travelling together got up to leave at Ghaziabad and kindly took pity on me, trying to help by pointing out the platform and train to get back to Delhi. That they couldn’t agree amongst themselves only shook my confidence a bit!!! After a fierce argument about which platform, which train, what time, they settled on platform 6 at 16:15, which would mosey its way back to Old Delhi Railway Station in about 45 minutes.

Despite their kindness, for obvious reasons, I wanted to check it out. Also, having not ended up anywhere, I was antsy and so walked around the station to get rid of my nervous energy and try to find some information. There was none. No destination board, no arrival board, no platform information. No platform numbers on the platforms, no reassuring European data and language-free pictograms, no announcements in multiple languages, no WAGN apologies to customers, nothing!!!

I decided to try to find someone to ask, which in the UK usually means someone with an ill-fitting, over-bright cheap-looking polyester uniform and horrible matching cap and a rectangular badge with a smiley button saying, “Hello I’m…”, above a narrow ledge for their name, followed by “and how may I help you?”, who then proceeds to possibly help you, or possibly confuse you, or possibly tell you that they have no idea what is going on. So you see, the Indian method is not necessarily inferior, just a different way of confusing the traveller. Or oriented towards the 99% of people who know which way they’re going, not the dumbo tourists who don’t…

Poking around the station, I found the Stationmaster’s Office. And the Assistant Stationmaster’s Office. The Station Controller’s Office, and the Assistant Station Controller’s Office. Station Manager and Assistant Station Manager. There were persons in every one of them, beavering away. Finally, dopey North American persona at the ready, I barge into one of them and begin speaking loudly – “can you tell me the next train to Delhi please?” In the corner, two fat rats conferred and waddled out of the room. They didn’t answer – one of the Assistant Station Manager’s Assistants did: yes, platform 6, 16:15.

Platform 6 had oodles of people marauding around with packages, bags, boxes, bundles. It’s coming up to 16:10 by this time. I ask several people this time if this is the right train. Yes, it appears that it is, for they all confirm that they’re going to Delhi. Unless it’s a tourist conspiracy or mass hypnosis, to Delhi we will go!

The train jerks away from the platform at a couple of minutes after 16:15…without shutting its doors. Minor detail, I guess…I sat down quickly so I could get over the imminent feeling of being about to fall out onto the track as we clickety-clacked back to Delhi.

By the time that we arrived back in Delhi after 17:00, I decided to leave Jaipur for another weekend, sometime, and surrendered my tickets for a refund, got an auto back to the YMCA, and then made a farcical hour-long attempt to telephone my accommodation to personally apologise for not showing up (the correct number of the 3 that I had was in my Jaipur Walks book, but didn’t work the first time, so I ended up at the YWCA and their STD/ISD/PCO booth, which was fortunate, as they were quite helpful). By that time, I was ready to have dinner at a trendy restaurant in ‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place-‘Naught-Place and pound a big bottle of Sandpiper…

3 Comments:

Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

I would rather be in Quebec City!

October 1, 2004 9:37 PM  
Blogger Trapper Dave said...

Enjoying all.....wondered if the drummer used "Rogers"....if , when you mentioned "side by side", you were looking at a good English double rifle....and thinking you could use a retired "Cop" to give you leverage in your haggling? Heading to New Orleans on Sunday....any Jazz there?

October 7, 2004 1:47 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Hi Tom

Long time no hear. Do you have an email address as well it would be good to write at length. Had a poonian night out with Rob Carty last Monday and you were sorely missed. Hope all is well.
Yours Matt

October 7, 2004 5:37 PM  

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