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Anupam Sen Gupta
4 min read
"English is a Funny Language", said an actor once !
Updated: Sep 21
All the years that I went to school, I don’t recall having sung the National Anthem at the school assembly. But I remember being a member of the cine club where they showed old Engish movies.
We were asked to pay a fine of One Rupee if we spoke in Bangla or Hindi. Vernacular, I mean. Haven’t we seen that when an Indian fails to speak in English, we generally mock them? And when the same guy fails to speak his own language, we usually defend him by saying that he/she lived overseas for 2 months and has forgotten to speak in the language he spoke all his life till then !!!
My father, a merchant navy Captain, lived and travelled overseas for nearly 33 years but never did he have an accent or ever did he forget his own language and culture. My youngest uncle, with who I am estranged, has been living in the UK since 1964. But last, when I met him, neither he nor his family had a single accent and preferred to speak in Bangla. And no matter how estranged I’m from them, I’m proud of them for not losing their fundamental roots.
This was in the early 70s. We were travelling on board S.S. Indian Resource and had reached Tilbury after 3 months of travel on the high seas. When a ship enters a foreign port, immigration & customs officers board to complete formalities. And this takes a bit of time.
My father was at that time a Chief Officer and the vessel was mastered by Capt. Roberts. My father asked my mother to take me to a nearby restaurant where he’d join us in a couple of hours or so. I have faint memory but soon after we entered, we were ushered to a corner table. Later when my father came, I remember there was a huge ruckus. The steward had pushed us to a corner as we were brown-skinned. This incident has stayed back with me no matter how faint. And no matter what!
Can you recall how many families in the 70s / 80s/ 90s taught their children to stand up to our National Anthem? I have seen where parents, themselves had no idea that it was respectful to stand up when a National anthem was played. But I have also seen parents making sure the diction was right when their kids spoke in English with a vernacular accent.
Tell me honestly, if you apply for a job with top Indian multinationals and you are not able to speak English, do you think jobs will come your way? Can imagine an interview in Hindi or any vernacular language? Even a Hindi teacher for a school job in a public school has to speak in English in interviews. So is the plight of the Hindustani music teacher as well! Please correct me, if I'm misinformed here.
Talking about National Anthem and English as a language, even I’m writing in English that has been forced upon me and has got embedded in my DNA over generations.
But what is extremely painful is that while we celebrate the English language, we tend to forget that this language colonised the world. What is American English? It's a language of colonists who eradicated the native language of that land!
Yet, I have to write my FB and Linkedin posts for publicity of my own work in English. The doctor has to write the prescription in English for the chemist to understand. The boyfriend or the girlfriend has to speak in English; else going on a date is a problem. Even when you mistakenly fart in public, the most common expression is ‘Oh Shit !’.
This reminds me of an incident. This guy would often travel to the USA and had struggled to pick up a pretty fake ‘American English’ accent. Those days, I used to run my guitar schools. This was in Gurgaon. The sun was going down and I’d come out of the class to the terrace to get some fresh air. This was the first floor. And right across was a huge park where people walk in the mornings and evenings.
Suddenly, I see this guy talking to an elderly lady right below where I was and I could distinctly hear them.
“Aunty where can I find ‘snakes’ ?’. Every time this guy asked the lady, she would go a step back.
“I mean, I’m hungry. I need some ‘snakes’. Where can I find fresh ‘snakes’ around here ?” and the lady just took an about turn and almost ran away.
So when he came up, I enquired out of pure curiosity. Allow me to add some spice here in the writing. Its after a lot of effort, I could figure out that he was looking for a place to buy some snacks !!
I think I have shared this somewhere earlier. An acquaintance had come with his girlfriend to meet me. I was meeting her for the first time. During the conversion, I learnt that she lived in Italy. So after a few pleasantries and a few ‘snakes’, as usual, I generally started talking food. My most favourite subject for any occasion when you don't have anything common to discuss.
We discussed cheese, tomatoes, pasta, pizza, oven baking, aubergine, olives and basil. The moment, the conversion hit aubergine, I couldn't resist and shared that I loved ‘Litti Choka and Chutney’. Now, what's that? Flour balls with roasted gram flour stuffings baked in fire served with potato aubergine (brinjal/baingan / eggplant) mash and fresh coriander/green mango/green chilli relish.
So when she heard me say ‘Aloo Baingan chokha’, she spontaneously reacted, ‘Holy shit! I hate Baingan. It's so disgusting and downmarket to have it.” And went on to say how she loved her baked ‘Aubergine’ in Milano and so on!
So that's the effect of English. ‘Augerbine sells but Baingan doesn't ?’
To sum up, we can't get rid of English as a language and even if we do, it could take another 200 years. I have no advice for this but can share what we discuss at home.
Kids are the future of any country. And in our country, it's probably best if we can strike a balance between the English language to go global and grow yet remain rooted deeply in our own culture and languages. In our own heritage.
For this, we don't need to wear any political colour. We just need to change the colour of our minds! And stop thinking that the late Queen was our 65th cousin !!! For her, we are and are subjects of her Commonwealth ???