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

India Today - - SIGNATURE - Moni Mohsin The au­thor is a Pak­istani writer. Her books in­clude The Di­ary of a So­cial But­ter­fly and The End of In­no­cence.

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.

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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