We are like this only!

English Vinglish

We are like this only!
There was a Trivandrum college principal who looked longingly at the portraits of his illustrious predecessors and declared, “One day, I too will hang like this!” Another schoolmaster from that same city was probably the pioneer behind the perennial joke: “Those of you outstanding, immediately get into your-your classes!” Joining their ilk was the professor who told a visitor, “That is C block, and that is the block head.”

When someone asks, “What is your good name?” we don’t bow gracefully and say ‘Thanks!’ before providing an answer; we merely grin at the question’s quaintness. We’re comfortable with ‘preponing’ meetings; seeing a film once, twice and ‘thrice’; ‘passing out’ of college in perfectly good health, and if we aren’t convinced about something, we say, ‘I have a doubt’, which isn’t as propah as saying ‘I have a question’.

I grew up laughing and wondering at the philosophical what-what will happen will happeney-happen, and that much only, and simply-at-all.

My father narrated an incident that happened a few years before his marriage. A group of cousins had gone on a picnic to Kovalam. One of them, a placid gentleman of no particular literary talent, casually broke into the conversation with this conundrum in English: “That with which we live is the food with which we eat.”

English was, at the easiest of times, an alien language, a dragon to subdue. At first, they laughed, brushing it off as an irrelevant interruption. But the rest of the picnic was spoilt! They could think of nothing else. The eerie line invaded their post-prandial stupor. “That with which we----?” “Food with which we---?” The most vexed member of their party was an English teacher who later went on to become a headmaster. Days after the picnic, he’d look up dazed and wonder, “‘With which we’ ...how’s that possible, what does he mean?”

Made for morphing

It took many years to realise that I was walking into the dawn of a new spoken language. Even as strict, academic users frowned at the carelessness, audacity or ignorance of these merry messers-up of their pristine English language, I was on the side of the adventurers, the experimenters, and those who decided to push the language to its limits, and then beyond. Even the needle of a compass swings wildly before it settles to a point of understanding.

When I was in college, aggressive speakers of the local language would come up and say, “Speaking Englibis and all, eh? You’re from abroad or what?” I soon discovered that some of these conscientious, derisive agitators couldn’t read the script of their own language, while I, the guy from “abroad”, could. I picked up Tamil from posters, films, listening to patti mandrams on TV, and by speaking the language. I entered the portals of its culture, and I could sense and discuss depths and nuances. However, I remained labelled as an English-user.

The derogatory nickname targets the snobbishness of those who abandon their own language and embrace this import. It is directed at ivory towers where a rarefied English, with depth and history, with linkages to world situations, is spoken. Ivory towers that rise condescendingly above the local situation. But the more I reflected, the more I figured that Englibis is not the same as English. If we, the native speakers, have adopted this white child, we have made him our own. We’ve fattened him up, darkened him and made him sensitive to the nuances of our cultures, we have worked hard to make him comfortable in every corner of our country, across its length and breadth.

But Englibis is more than its connotation suggests. It’s not an import, it’s what we’ve made of the import. If English is Man, Englibis is Superman! It’s the sum of the infinite possibilities of language that we’ve raked up through continued usage, and stuffed the import with. If English is bread, Englibis is the sandwich. It’s our language now, greater than what we received.

India is a fertile playing field. The number, richness and variety of our local languages married to the licentious receptivity of English results in bloated offspring that revel in the best of both worlds. Listen to speakers of Bengali, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi, for example, speaking English. The old language swells with new accents and linkages, hybrid words and home-bred usages. It’s a rolling stone that gathers all the moss.

In his The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, Bill Bryson shows how speakers of one language consider those that speak another. The Japanese word for foreigner means ‘stinking of foreign hair’. A Hungarian is a ‘pimple’ to the Czechs. Germans call cockroaches Frenchmen, and Frenchmen call lice Spaniards. So, isn’t it wonderful that we Indians have not only adopted the English language, but also married it to our own languages? Logically, we should have Hinglish, Manglish, Tanglish and Banglish, but we have, with dignity, chosen to call it English, and speak it with different accents and addendums.

When I taught creative English to Maths students, many of them were new users of the language. I began my class with a speaking module. Their speeches were graded by their peers. The understanding was that if they were kind to their friends, they would be doing them an injustice. If they pointed out flaws as well as highlights, they’d help them to improve. 

Many of them were nervous. I called them aside and said, never mind grammar and correctness, express yourself as well as you can. Their assignments, too, were judged on the same basis. I would, however, point out extreme departures from “correct” English. The happy outcome of this was the progress I found in their subsequent assignments. I found amazing creativity when they handled English like their own language. Once they felt comfortable handling it, I could point out the differences.

My advice was simple: begin with courage, listen to spoken English, read a lot, and then use the language, your courage undimmed. You need to own the language. For that, you need to know the language. Not its rock-hard principles alone, but its fluidity and contradictions.

Language is always a journey, never a destination. Or it wouldn’t grow. The language, resting in the pages of grammar books and dictionaries, and in the torture rooms of grammarians, should be dusted out and related to the everyday language we use. ‘Ayyo’ is a recent example.

So I allowed my students their personal idiosyncrasies. And when their mother tongue flirted outrageously with their English, I let it be. Rather than striving for a sanitised, standardised English, I was aiming for an organic hybrid, unique to the speaker, and refreshing for his audience. Which is why I’m worried when I hear of dedicated trainers sculpting and pruning the language of students who plan to go abroad to study. If they don’t qualify, they can’t go. In keeping with the general trend to standardise, to make efficient robots of us all, the individuality of each speaker is sacrificed.

Mention Nabokov, and the common response is: Lolita?

Not because of its exquisite language, but because the middle-aged protagonist has it off with his 12-year-old step-daughter, and because the book was banned and unbanned with such fanfare. But ardent fans (like me) still swoon at every opportunity to revel in his words. Nabokov fled his native Russia in his 41st year. Had he been coached and tested in English, and declared fit to flee, we would be reading a horribly sanitised Lolita, which probably deserved to remain in judicial custody.

What’s a language, anyway?

We learn the rules of a language only to know the ways in which we can creatively subvert them without awkwardness; to see how we can own it, and use it without being misunderstood. Like entering a dark room with a torch, exploring it, and later being able to manage even without a light. And for that we need courage. If we keep looking over our shoulders, fearful of the cruel custodians of its original purity, we run the risk of never being comfortable or creative enough to ply what is, after all, a tool of communication. We must make our language bigger than its legacy. That’s how language grows.

Think of the conquerors and adventurers who explored alien worlds, ill-equipped to relate to the mysteries in their way. And yet they persevered. Language is an exciting country we must explore and make our own. We do need a map, but there comes a moment when we can throw it away.

We need to make that journey from despotic canon to the infinitely possible, from English to Englibis.

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