WE ARE LIKE THIS ONLY
It’s not just a love for Bollywood and one- day international cricket matches that still unites Indians and Pakistanis, but also our very own subcontinental English
Afew summers back, I was invited to a lunch party by an Indian friend in London. The other guests— most of whom I did not know— were also Indian. They were a well- heeled bunch— the women in designer dresses and kitten heels, the men in Polo shirts and Gucci loafers. The chatter was mainly about other globetrotting Indians I did not know and grand weddings in Madrid and Marrakech that I hadn’t been invited to. I stood on the patio watching their children play in the garden, while indoors, the hostess dashed about organising lunch. A young mother in skinny jeans and precipitous heels stepped out on to the patio and called out to her daughter in the garden. “Anjali, come inside. Lunch is getting ready.” A little girl looked up, nodded. The mother teetered back in.
Two minutes later she was back. “Anjali,” she called more loudly. “I said lunch is ready.” “Coming,” Anjali replied. The mother returned indoors. When Anjali still hadn’t obeyed, Skinny Jeans returned to the patio and standing beside me, hollered: “Anjali, are you deaf? Lunch has been put.” Then smiling apologetically at me, she said, “Thrice I’ve called her and still she’s not listening.” Instantly, I felt at home. Her face may have been unfamiliar, but we spoke the same language.
When my book The Diary of a Social Butterfly was first published in India, I did not know how it would be received. It chronicled the life, times and opinions of a vacuous socialite in a brand of upperclass Lahori English, which I thought was peculiar to the western side of the border. I also feared her concerns would be too narrowly Pakistani to find favour. But I was wrong. Not only did her obsession with parties and Prada remind Indian readers of their very own Page Three crowd, but her language, which we call Urdlish, turned out to be closely related, in fact a ‘ cousin- sister’ of Hinglish. Of the many Indian reviews and readers’ letters, more than half were about the delight Indian readers felt in reading a book written at long last “in their own English”.
After 60- odd years apart, it seems that it’s not just a love for Bollywood and one- day international cricket matches that still unites us, but also our very own subcontinental English. So why is it, that despite our very different educational systems, po- litical experiences and cultural lives, we speak the same language? Or to be more precise, the same English? For it is well- known that what used to be known as Hindoostani by the Brits and was the common currency of northern India, has become chaste Hindi in India and classical Urdu in Pakistan. Few Pakistanis can now fully understand the news on Doordarshan and I bet an equally small number in India, probably in isolated enclaves in Lucknow, can completely comprehend PTV Urdu news. If languages can be used politically to divide and separate, then this is as good an example as any. But English, thankfully, having been spared the dead hand of state sponsorship, has evolved organically into a flavoursome chutney of bureaucratic officialese, archaic colonial usage, Hindi grammar, Urdu circumlocution and desi sensibility which is startlingly similar on both sides of the border.
That said, there are minor differences. In Pakistan, for instance, we tend not to ‘ air dash’ to meetings which have been ‘ preponed’. Nor are we particularly ‘ enthu’ about anything, least of all making ‘ time- pass’ friends. And I imagine Indians eat lunch as opposed to taking it and become slim and not smart when they lose weight. Nor do they break each other’s faces when they fall out.
But we share our passion for direct translation from Urdu/ Hindi to English, which is what gives our English its piquancy. For instance, our penchant for the word ‘ only’ which we insert at the end of sentences, is a translation of the word ‘ hee’. So ‘ we got it from Delhi only’ is a translation of ‘ hum ne Dilli say hee liya hai’. ‘ Food has been put’ means ‘ khaana lag gaya hai’. The English word which we desis find difficult to get our heads around, is ‘ behind’. For some inexplicable reason, we have a preference for the word ‘ backside’. So my house is never behind yours. Instead, I live on your backside.
It’s not just isolated words which are translated, but entire phrases and idioms. So the British look askance when we put ‘ stones on our hearts’ (‘ dil par pathhar rakh kar’) and clap for their winning cricket team while our ‘ hearts shed tears of blood’ ( dil khoon ke ansoo roya) and our faces are black-
ened and noses are cut at our teams’ appalling performance. Nor do they understand why our shoes lead such wilful lives—‘ my shoe even won’t go to your house’— or why people’s heads often serve as chairs, as in ‘ my in- laws are sitting on my head’, or as dance floors, ‘ my students dance on my head night and day’, or indeed, as canapés, ‘ my children are eating my head’. If reports from India and Pakistan are to be believed, large numbers of subcontinental children also regularly suck their hapless parents’ blood.
Translation is not confined to words and phrases. Language is also freighted with cultural sensibility, which is why we in the subcontinent show no hesitation in adopting older strangers as uncles and aunties. And why male bureaucrats in Pakistan, who know it is a sign of good breeding to ask after each other’s spouses never say, ‘ how’s your wife?’ but ‘ how’s your good wife?’ The first query is impertinent. The second correct. This is also why our homes are ‘ humble abodes’ and our women are never pregnant but are in the family way or have ‘ heavy feet’ or are simply ‘ blessed’. And why the birth of a baby is announced thus: ‘ Congratulations, you have become an auntie.’ It is because we are accustomed to the courtly temperament of Urdu that we always favour the flowery metaphor over the direct statement. Pakistani newspapers never say that streets were empty. Instead, in times of strife, our streets wear a deserted look.
Most people who speak English as a second lan- guage will agree that it is riddled with inconsistencies. To be fair, which language is not? But to the subcontinental mind, English has more than its fair share of difficulties. Take plurals, for instance. Why can’t our ‘ nears and dears’ be proud of our ‘ works’? Haan? Tell? And why are English prepositions so idiosyncratic? Why does the addition of a preposition alter the meaning of the word ‘ put’ so drastically— put up, put down, put in, put out, put off. Given the variations, is it any wonder that we have simplified our lives by adding the word ‘ up’ to most verbs? We ‘ cope up’ with difficulties, we get ‘ stuck up’ in traffic, we ‘ mix up’ at parties, we ‘ wash up’ our faces and we ‘ knock up’ people when we get annoyed with them. And when English has so many words which sound similar, can we be blamed for getting historical when we laugh, or eating thin, thin slithers of cake when we diet? While we are on the subject of words whose meanings change, can someone flag it up when English words change their meanings for no good reason? We’ve just about understood that it’s no longer kosher to announce that we’re gay when we’re feeling light- hearted, but we are still happily abusing our servants and children and proudly proclaiming it too.
So what I’m meaning is that English no longer belongs to the English only. And if we are speaking like this, it is not because we are illitreds, who don’t know any better, okay? It is because we Subcon wallahs have made English our own tongue and by doing this we have given it richness, maza and masala. That is why even English reading types are giving us big big prizes for writing books in English. Because they are also appreciating from the debts of their hearts.