Sunday, September 4, 2011

Urban bawl

I have been invited by Time Out Mumbai to write a column for their 'Back of the Book' page with a frequency of six weeks or so. Being given a general carte blanche (other than the word count), I was delighted to accept. What is nice is that the column will be circulated every fortnight into Time Out Delhi and Time Out Bengaluru, hence the six week interval.

The first piece is published in the latest issue of Time Out, under the by-line 'Urban bawl'. This one, called 'English Class', is a reflection on our use of language in the city.

English Class

A newly married couple walk hand in hand amidst the venerable ruins of Nalanda in Bihar. She displays every post-marital semantic- green saree and bangles, elbow length mehendi and fluorescent sindoor. He wears well-fitted jeans, shades and a tee-shirt that screams in a loud font: ‘Show Me Your Hooters!’ After blinking several times in disbelief, it comes to me that neither really knows the difference between a car-horn and a large breast when encountered as slang. I concede (although I did not try) that, if I did speak to them, I could have had a comfortable tête-à-tête with both in English.

There was a time when we were taught English gratia English. Today, increasingly, it is a transactional tool, not language to revel in. In Mumbai, various ‘academies’ (‘classes’ are infra-dig) help you ‘overcome your English language problem’. One such advertises Business English as a ‘tailor made course to suit requirements of professionals travelling abroad, answering mails, business etiquettes and free flow conversation’. This poor English, taught by those who speak poor English, is far removed from the ‘exposing my talents’ or ‘removing photograph’ garden-variety Indianisms and has inflated into a full-blown Pavlovian call-and-response- adequate only to get a job done.

English is not spoken; it is used, the way most of us use technology, at the push-button-get-result level, unconcerned with any deus-ex-machina within. In public, words activate and deactivate like phone-apps, bypassing all known clichés into a different level of parole. Fill any given situation with some words; meaning gets conveyed as a form of gestalt. Just after the Zaveri Bazaar blasts, a television news reporter announces 'the police commissioner is taking toll of the blast area.' A bootleg DVD of ‘The Perfect Man’ has a byline (copy-pasted from any available review, because a byline must be given): 'It is to be endured rather than enjoyed.'

'narmean? Of course you do.

More and more people in our cities speak English, blithely ignorant of the language’s own culture, etymology and allusion. A commentator digresses from cricket to July’s riots in London and keeps referring to some black perpetrators as ‘African-American’, attempting political correctness with unintentional consequences. This unselfconscious use of English, to fill space, written or verbal, from smses (pls revaart asap 2 cust) to hoardings, variously deflates, decontextualises, and ultimately decimates sense, and yet, as in the immortal words from Namak Halaal: ‘I can talk English, I can walk English, I can laugh English, I can run English, because English is a phunny language.’ We nurse this as a paradigm in our post-globalized world.

I berate myself for such hoity-toity rantings, elitist bleddy Inglis speaker that I am, making phun of those challenged. I am contrite.

Then, last week, crossing the foot-over bridge outside the CST, I pass a young mother and son. She wears a quintessentially urban saree. The little boy, no more than seven, perhaps, wears a dark tee-shirt that says: ‘I pushed myself out through the vagina and all I got for it was this lousy T-shirt’... and I go: ‘What were you thinking, Mommy?’ But that’s just the point.

She wasn’t.

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