“An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local” by Kalpana Mohan

Elephant Falls

While one might expect a text on linguistics from the title, An English Made in India is fact rather closer to travel-writing: no bad thing, for Kalpana Mohan in an engaging writer and the result is a pleasant and often erudite ramble around India. Along the way, she talks to school teachers in the hills, her family chauffeur and Uber drivers, students, Delhi booksellers, a Kerala princess and some leading Indian literary lights from Jerry Pinto and Arunava Sinha to Nabaneeta Dev Sen. Mohan is very good at this.

Much of the ground she treads is relatively familiar: she discusses the role of English in Indian society, how it is both an actual and perceived requirement for everything from jobs to status, how—in effect—English-language capability is taken as a proxy for everything from competence to good-breeding. The popular novelist Chetan Bhagat—who appears as perhaps he must; Mohan is not, on the whole, a fan—has been over the issue many times. Mohan does however come up with a number of unexpected anecdotes, for example how in Bollywood

 

a movie’s first screenplay is often written in English and then translated into Hindi by a dialogue writer. The entire language of communication on most sets continues to be English. Today, many actors cannot read Devanagari and are hence given their Hindi dialogue in the Roman script.

 

She also discusses the political role of English as a sort of lingua franca, a neutral linguistic middle-ground between Hindi and India’s other languages; central government attempts to have Hindi take over this role led to riots in Tamil Nadu.

A lighter subject is how English and Indian languages have cross-pollinated each other. There seem to be, even in Mohan’s attempts to treat the process as bidirectional, many more English words, even for quite ordinary things, in Indian languages than vice versa. Nevertheless, some examples of Indian influence in English are rather fun:

 

The phrase ‘big cheese’ had wormed its way into American life in a peculiar manner… It is believed to be an offshoot of ‘the real chiz’ (the real thing, ‘chiz’ being an Urdu word). Returnees from India started to use it in Britain, and the unfamiliar, foreign chiz is thought to have become the more familiar cheese.

 

But Mohan sometimes trips up a little when it comes to linguistics itself:

 

Every time the English language met a people and a culture—first the Romans, then the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, the French and then the colonies—it received another overhaul.

 

English of course never came in touch with the Romans, who were long gone by then. The theory that “bite the bullet” originates from 1857 mutiny has apparently been discarded; at the very least, there is a credible version of the expression that dates to the late 18th century.

This is not however meant to be deeply rigorous. Mohan notes with affection such Indian neologisms as “prepone” and the syntactic osmosis of Indian usage in which “condole” is a perfectly good verb, “isn’t it?” a fine interrogative particle and “felicitated” an acceptable past participle; mispelled signs however are met with disapproval.

Indian-inflected English can be just as elegant as the French- or Italian-inflected varieties. Mohan can nevertheless on occasion come across as a bit of a snob herself:

 

When I listened keenly enough, his Tamil leaked from the edge of his sentences in the subtlest of ways. I heard it when he uttered words like ‘almost’ and ‘already’. He pronounced ‘al’ as in ‘ul’ in ‘ultimate’. There was also the way he said the word ‘digital’, the second ‘i’ of the word always inaudible.

 

She has a good ear.

The use of English in literature is of course problematical when there are any number of perfectly good Indian languages to write in.

An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local, Kalpana Mohan (Aleph, September 2019)
An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local, Kalpana Mohan (Aleph, September 2019)

Rather more profound, perhaps, is Mohan’s discussion of how Indian literature has made mined Indian English, for example the Indian use of “only” as in “He’s like that only!”:

 

Rohinton Mistry employs ‘only’ masterfully in a line in his short story where he conveys the maid Jaakaylee’s frustration at her Parsi boss and his wife. They were so highhanded that ‘they thought they were like British only, ruling India side by side’. The way Mistry uses ‘only’ in this sentence nails one of the most oft-heard Indianisms still in use in Indian English.

 

The use of English in literature is of course problematical when there are any number of perfectly good Indian languages to write in. The bi- and often multilingual environment that many if not most Indians operate in must be unfathomable for the most part monolingual English speakers. Mohan herself writes trippingly well in what for her was, if no longer perhaps is, her second language. That Indian authors have enriched English-language literature to an immeasurable degree is taken as writ; an English-speaker writing in some other language is however seen as remarkable, bringing to mind Samuel Johnson’s dog, the one that walks on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Echoing a theme that Minae Minae Mizumura wrote eloquently about in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Mohan comes to a slow awareness that this sort of bilingualism has drawbacks as well as advantages and concludes that

 

while English had become a necessary evil uniting a nation in a common goal, several generations of Indians had also had their brains altered in a way—that our regional languages, the tongues we were born into, would survive without our active, concerted effort in keeping them alive through the medium of daily speech, literature and art. As I end this journey chasing a topic that is vast and hairy, I’m convinced I must read Tamil literature to know more about where I come from and to appreciate the ideas that shaped the minds of the people who went before me.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.