Spoken in English Vinglish

Pant left her job as a schoolteacher in Pithoragarh,Uttarakhand,when she married a software engineer one-and-a-half years ago and came to live in Indirapuram,a middle-class residential suburb in Ghaziabad.

Written by Irena Akbar | New Delhi | Published:October 7, 2012 2:33 am

Pant left her job as a schoolteacher in Pithoragarh,Uttarakhand,when she married a software engineer one-and-a-half years ago and came to live in Indirapuram,a middle-class residential suburb in Ghaziabad.

Why does Harshita Pant want to learn English?

Pant left her job as a schoolteacher in Pithoragarh,Uttarakhand,when she married a software engineer one-and-a-half years ago and came to live in Indirapuram,a middle-class residential suburb in Ghaziabad. “Suddenly,I was thrown into this big city. The change was sort of a shock,” she says. That shock comprised “seeing women in my housing society speak in English and myself being a mute spectator to their conversations”. “Mujhe laga main peeche reh gayi (I felt I had been left behind),” says Pant,who insists on talking to us in English,but evidently expresses her feelings better in Hindi.

Like the protagonist of the new film English Vinglish,Pant is a housewife who has signed up for classes in “spoken” or conversational English,and is one among millions of Indians who have felt or been made to feel socially and professionally inept because they cannot speak the language fluently. “I have seen how salesmen in big retail outlets respond better to customers who speak English. I may be from a small town,but if I speak good English,I’d be no less than a big-city girl,” she says.

For Pant’s classmate at Vwin English Institute,Shweta Shrivastava,it was a more pressing issue — her son’s nursery admission — that compelled her to sign up for a three-month course. This BTech in computer science from Gwalior,Madhya Pradesh,was a lecturer in a college,where the language of instruction was English. “But in Gwalior,one spoke enough English to get by basic work,like understanding what is written on a sheet of paper. Our books were in English,but the students and I spoke in Hindi,” she says.

When it was about time to enrol her son in nursery school,she realised that she had been “left behind”. “My son was rejected by three schools,and I hold myself responsible,” she says. Why? “My husband is fluent in English,so he spoke well in the interviews,but I went blank. I was nervous. Isse pehle ki wo humein fail karein,main apne aankhon mein fail ho gayi (Before they could fail us,I failed in my own eyes),” she says.

In a country of over 6,000 mother tongues and enormous linguistic wealth,English is seen as the language everyone needs to do business with the world — and not be made a fool of. The number of English speakers in India cannot be ascertained with certainty. According to the 2001 census,around 10.4 per cent of Indians say they speak English either as their second or third language. For the vast majority,it is still an alien language.

In a society of great inequality,English slips into the cracks of our insecurities and divides people further — the rich from the poor,the big-city girl who looks down on the small-towner as behenji,the English-medium educated from the “vernis”. It can sometimes make you feel less than who you are. “When you speak in English,even if you are shabbily dressed,people listen to you. But if you can’t speak in the language,no matter how nattily turned out you may be,nobody will take you seriously,” Shrivastava says.

But if it slams doors on you,it can also thrust you into a world of opportunity. It is the language of modernity and technology,the language that oils the machine of wealth. At the end of 26 alphabets and the treacherous terrain of indefinite articles,prepositions and deceptive spellings,is a ladder to a better life.

That hope is driving thousands to English language institutes across the country. From the Bhopal housewife who has signed up for the Absolute Beginners Course to the Pune salesman who wants to learn English and become a voiceover artiste,from the 22-year-old Ahmedabad engineer who was rejected by an MNC because he faltered in English to the 24-year-old in Ghaziabad who is stumped that “spay-ti-al” is not how you pronounce spatial.

While English makes the playing field askew for those without the right accent,it is not a matter of pedigree. It can be taught,mastered,and used to bargain for a better deal. In Mumbai,26-year-old Umesh Maurya works as a driver. He was twice offered a job in the UAE,which he refused because he was intimidated by the sight of application and visa forms in English. “I am a graduate,but I don’t know English — the only way to communicate with people in a foreign land. I had no choice but to turn down the offers,” says Maurya,who has now signed up for spoken English classes at Prerana Academy.

Run by Renuka Bangard,Prerana Academy is one of many such institutes in Mumbai. What sets it apart,however,is the clientele. Bangard takes only people from the lower middle-class as students. “As security personnel,office boys,drivers,real-estate agents,plumbers and so on,they have to deal with the English-speaking lot all the time. It is a handicap when they can’t even read a memo. As support staff,they are the ones who most need the knowledge of basic English,” says Bangard,who ran Prerana Academy in Belgaum,a small town in Karnataka,for 15 years before she moved to Mumbai last year.

Bangard charges fees depending on her students’ income — most of them pay no more than Rs 500 a month for one-hour classes,six days a week. Once every week,she also teaches her students the basic use of computers and communication technology: how to type text messages in English on their phones,search for names in the phonebook,dial the number,check email and so on.

In other social circles,of course,English matters even more than money. Mumbai’s Arihant Sharma makes a living by taking private tuitions in English. Sixty per cent of his students are housewives. “Most of them got married at an early age and never had to learn English. But finding themselves in posh neighbourhoods,they feel ill at ease. They need to be able to correctly pronounce the names of dishes and wines at restaurants,where perhaps even the waiters have a fair command over English,” he says.

Sharma recounts the case of a 35-year-old Gujarati woman whose diamond merchant husband made enough money to move from a two-bedroom house in suburban Kandivali to a three-bedroom apartment in Bandra West. From a regular all-girls school,the couple shifted their daughter to Dhirubhai Ambani School. “Invited to the birthday party of her 10-year-old daughter’s friend at a high-end restaurant,she dressed up in branded clothes and a Louis Vitton bag. But once there,she chose to stand in a corner,fearing that she would not be able to hold a conversation in English. She cried all night after returning home and asked her husband start her English lessons the next day,” he says.

Social embarrassment isn’t the only reason why women want to learn English. “When their children are in English medium schools,many mothers find it tough to teach them or keep a tab on their studies. It is to avoid such situations that they join the classes,” Sharma points out.

For the multitudes who throng classes to learn English,though,grammar is not how they overcome their inhibitions. It’s confidence. Yohan Maheshwari,for example,had dreamt of working in a call centre since he was 16,but when he applied for a job as a tele-caller,he was rejected due to his poor English. Dejected but not discouraged,he enrolled with a popular English-speaking institute and quickly picked up the language. Not satisfied with the Rs 7,000 per month income as a teacher at the institute,he decided to start his own classes. Today,he is all of 24 and his academy,Ispeak,has four branches in Mumbai and he plans to expand to other cities. Maheshwari’s own English-speaking skills are not perfect,but passable. Whether or not he is aware of this shortcoming is something his confident body language does not betray,which is perhaps what makes him successful.

In highly competitive institutes like the IITs and medical colleges,this lack of confidence can cripple bright students who might not be as proficient in the language. Anil Meena,a 22-year-old first year student at AIIMS from Rajasthan’s Baran district,committed suicide in March this year,because he could not cope with academic pressure and his inability to master English. “Reserved category students from rural parts of the country face a huge problem,since they are made to feel dumb for not understanding English. Since the entrance is an objective paper in both English and Hindi,they are able to get through,but once they clear the exam,they are bombarded with a course completely in English,” a professor from the anatomy department of AIIMS says. The IITs ensure that new batches of students every year have refresher courses in English to help students,and there are similar courses at the Chennai Mathematical Institute and Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute.

If there are people and coaching institutes cashing in on this demand,there are some like Lucknow’s Aditya Kumar,who teach it for free. Every day,he goes out on his bicycle,which is fixed with a contraption to hold colourful hoardings,to teach English in four city slums. “When I began teaching in 1995,people used to contact me saying they wanted to learn English but had no money,” he says. Aditya has had no formal training in English,and purists would quibble about the writing of his hoardings. But he believes that in taking the language to those who do not know it,he is doing a good deed. “Their hunger for the language reminded me of myself. It didn’t feel right,” he says.

(With inputs from Hamza Khan,Milind Ghatwai,Rohan Swamy,Ashutosh Bhardwaj and Ritu Sharma)

Lost in Translation

Back in the late 1990s,when I was writing for television,a screenplay writer told a channel official that he would like to make a Munshi Premchand story into a show. An MBA with no background in Hindi literature,the official retorted,“Munshi Premchand who? Send me his biodata.” That,I believe,was when Hindi began to take a backseat in the Indian entertainment scene.

With corporatisation of production houses and privatisation of channels,management graduates came to head these outfits as creative heads. Not comfortable with reading the Devanagari script,they demanded that writers write in the Roman script. This first rendered Urdu writers obsolete. But the new generation of writers like me,who knew English,flourished. And slowly,the Devanagari script was completely replaced by English.

I am a purist,like several other film writers. I continue to write in Devanagari when using pen and paper. But few software support the Devanagari script so I have to type my scripts and dialogues in Roman.

Hindi is a scientific language and is spoken as it is written. If written in the English alphabet,it results in loss of expression and mispronunciation of words. Take,for example,the Hindi equivalent of “I will leave”. I spell it as “chhodoonga”,but if one is not particular about the spelling,it can easily be read as a Hindi expletive.

Earlier,film titles were written in Hindi,English and Urdu and now,they are only in English. Most young actors are not comfortable with the Devanagari script.

Only some old-school actors,such as Om Puri and Dharmendra,still demand that they be given their script and dialogues written in Hindi.

It may seem like a pitiable situation,but with actors of foreign origin and south Indians making a foray into Bollywood,English is the unifying factor. It bridges the communication gap.

At the same time,those industry members who cannot speak in fluent English are judged. Character actor Ashutosh Rana became famous for his eloquence in Hindi,but today,he is considered outdated.

Thankfully,however,that pretentiousness has not seeped into our cinema and we continue to make all kinds of movies — with themes that are semi-urban,urban and upwardly mobile,and also those rooted in rural India.

At the same time,cinema is a reflection of our times. We live in the era of shortcuts and text messages. Even Paan Singh Tomar and Gangs of Wasseypur,set in the Hindi heartland,used spoken Hindi with a smattering of English words. In fact,pure Hindi coming from anyone but Mr Amitabh Bachchan sounds absurd today. I cannot tell a modern story and have my actors mouthing dialogues in Hindi that belongs to the 1950s. One has to use the language that will connect with the audience today.

Word Made God

Ramendra Singh

It was supposed to be a temple with a grand plan,with an idol imitating the Statue of Liberty — a robed figure holding a pen in one hand and a book in the other,and a computer at her feet. The pen stood for education,the book represented the Constitution,which espouses equal rights for Dalits,and the computer,the world. She was the “Goddess English”,and her agenda was to empower Dalits through education in English. Her visage was sketched on paper,and the construction of her temple began in full swing in 2010,in Banka,a village of about 7,000 in Lakhimpur-Kheri district,Uttar Pradesh. But just as a two-feet high bronze statue of “Goddess English” was about to be installed,the establishment “conspired” to stall the move,says Amarchand Jauhar,state president of Dalit Shiksha Andolan,an organisation working for the uplift of Dalits.

“The police said the temple would foment communal disharmony. Administration officials ordered the structure could not be built without permission. We had to abandon it as it was in October last year,” recalls Jauhar,as he shows us around the unfinished temple — with its exposed bricks and tables and chairs gathering dust.

The statue of the “goddess” is in the safe custody of Chandra Bhan Prasad,convener of Dalit Shiksha Andolan,who came up with the idea of the temple. “When I thought of propagating English among Dalits,I researched many ideas like establishing a school or an institute. But one day,I realised that Dalits were not allowed to enter Hindu temples. While some of them had found a god in Lord Buddha,there was no goddess for them. If they could get a goddess in the form of English,this language could become a fashion among Dalits,” he says. He chose Banka,whose population is 40 per cent Dalit,most of them farm labourers,as the site for the temple,as his organisation has many supporters in Lakhimpur-Kheri. He found a champion in Jauhar,on whose land the temple was being built.

“We wanted to start an education movement for Dalits from here. We had planned to erect signboards with English alphabets printed on them on the road that connects the village with NH-24,hold street plays on the importance of English,and distribute replicas of goddess English,” says Jauhar.

But while the fate of the temple is undecided,Prasad’s idea has inspired villagers to learn English. Jauhar is constructing a four-room building for his planned English-medium primary school,which would be the first in Banka. He has also employed three English teachers for the Hindi-medium Nalanda Shiksha Niketan Inter-college,the only school up to Class 12 in the village,managed by his wife. Shahnawaz Ali,a graduate from Banka who worked in a call centre in Gurgaon for some years,returned to his village last year to start an English-coaching centre called Ocean of Education English Speaking Classes,and a primary school.

Most villagers prefer to send their children to the two private schools in the village. Vipin,a student of Class 12 at Nalanda,wants to be a computer operator and realises he needs to understand English for that. His classmate Soiba Bano reads only English textbooks but wishes to graduate in English “so that I can read more English books”.

Jauhar and Prasad still have their temple dreams,and plan to ask the new UP administration to resume work,as the last one — ironically led by a Dalit — didn’t allow so. “She apparently asked her officials who this second Dalit goddess was,” says Prasad.

The Curious case of Hinglish

Dilip Bobb

Mind it! For many Indians,encounters with the English language produce some mind-boggling results. Only in India will you hear words and phrases like “prepone” or “do the needful”. Only in India do buildings have a “backside” and men have “co-brothers.” We call it Hinglish and it has redefined the way English is spoken in India,a remarkable hybrid of languages and dialects and colloquialisms. Pronunciation adds to the linguistic artfulness. In Punjab,you go to the “satation” to meet a “luyyer” while in Bengal,those who hear the “bhard shing” can also retaliate by “showing red eye” to those who make fun of “yevery” Tamil.

In the end,it all comes down to one word. Simply. It’s a word that conveys a variety of meanings. How so? For almost a century,we were British subjects so it is no surprise that English was,in Salman Rushdie’s words,subject to “chutnification.” There’s even a glossary of over 2,000 entries in Hobson-Jobson,a collection of Anglo-Indian words and phrases,now updated in Hanklyn-Janklin. Hinglish,the forced marriage of Hindi and English,has become so deeply embedded in our everyday conversation that it’s become the lingua franca of the Indian middle class youth,not to mention Bollywood where every second movie these days is in,well,Hinglish (Jab We Met and Dangerous Ishq). One memorable line spoken by Amitabh Bachchan in Namak Halal sums it up: “I can talk English,I can walk English,I can laugh English,because English is a very phunny language…”

That it certainly is. For us,everything is “tip-top”,our trucks carry signs saying “Horn OK Tata”,we don’t just hit someone,we give them a “tight slap”. We meet someone and ask for their “good name” and we refer to someone as “your good self”. Our ethnic origins become “my native place” and our public speakers are heard “in pin-drop silence”. When we call someone on the phone,we say that “this is…….this side”,as if telephone lines really have two sides,as opposed to “same to same”,another typically Indian creation.

Extreme politeness,a very Indian trait,produces archaic phrases,while at the other end are incorrect grammar,misspelled words and odd implications brought on by semi-literacy. Signboards warn people not to “pass urine here,” while others promise “child bear” which is not a fertility clinic but chilled beer. In our matrimonial ads,prospective brides have a “wheatish complexion” and caste is often “no bar”. For decades,such linguistic imperfections were seen as the patois of the streets. Nowadays,it’s actually become fashionable,thanks to fictional characters like Quick Gun Murugun. Other phrases become embedded in popular culture because they sound contemporary. “Time Pass” is one example but there are others that have been literally translated from Hindi or regional languages. Families in the Hindi heartland refer to having their “nose cut”,a Hindi phrase for being socially disgraced.

The origins of much of our language woes lies with our bureaucrats and their love for all things flowery: “I remain your humble servant” and “I will revert”. We Indians are also overly intimate. Phone calls from total strangers will open with “Hello Dear” while street urchins think nothing of referring to you as “uncle.” It’s all quite relative and there’s really no limit to Hinglish: old phrases gradually become extinct,or “expire’ as we say,to be replaced by new ones as language evolves and Bollywood combines with street slang to produce words and phrases that are uniquely Indian. What to do,we are like that only.

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