Absence of the definite article in Hindi or Urdu, possibly in other Indian languages as well, can create unforeseen problems.
A gentleman from South Asia wished to know the time during a tour of England. He turned to an Englishman and asked: ‘Excuse me, sir, what is time, please?’ The question provoked a quaintly acerbic reply. ‘Gentleman, you have just asked me a profoundly philosophical question.’
Indians and Pakistanis feel embarrassed and insecure if their English is not up to the mark but they betray no qualms about mishandling and mistreating their own spoken languages.
Jean Paul Sartre offered an upright way of looking at the problem but there seem to be few takers. In his preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth — bible for an entire generation of revolutionary romantics — Sartre described how colonial languages were used as weapons of far-reaching exploitation.
His reasoning was studded with insights that came from a knowledge of the dialectics of colonialism at work.
For Fanon, he wrote: ‘Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men, and one thousand five hundred million natives. The former had the Word; the others had the use of it. Between the two there were hired kinglets, overlords and a bourgeoisie, sham from beginning to end, which served as go-betweens.’
That the European elite manufactured a native elite is all too well known. ‘They picked out promising adolescents; they branded them, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture, they stuffed their mouths full with high-sounding phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing left to say to their brothers; they only echoed. From Paris, from London, from Amsterdam we would utter the words ‘Parthenon! Brotherhood!’ and somewhere in Africa or Asia lips would open ... ‘thenon! ... therhood!’ It was the golden age.’
What can be really jarring is that the quest for another language, whether as a tool of exploitation or as a means of livelihood, has seen generations of South Asians stranded between two cultural poles.
A former editor of a leading English daily in Delhi rejoices in his competence in Urdu poetry, an asset he has learnt to put on display as a lawmaker in parliament. In his intervention on the tragic events in Mumbai, the MP was expressing outrage at the government’s tardy response to the gruesome killings.
Though an advocate of ‘two eyes for an eye and a jaw for a tooth’ in the war on terrorism, the MP found himself quoting Josh Malihabadi with neither the context nor the lines making any sense against his blind rage. A bigger tragedy was that there was no one in the house or in the media to correct him.
The original couplet goes thus:
‘Koi hadh hi nahi hai ehteram-i-aadmiyat ki
Badi karta hai dushman aur hum sharmaaye jaate hain’.
It’s a celebration of the exalted human race that though faced with an underhand assault by a fellow human, is only embarrassed at the lack of civilised demeanour in the adversary. To be sure Josh was hardly making a biblical case for gory revenge, as the MP would have us believe. Sartre, of course, never claimed that grammatically incorrect language — homegrown or of colonial origin — was any less effective in its exploitative use.
In absolute terms there is nothing like good or bad language, only its good and bad use. The great Urdu poet Ghalib suffered greatly at the hands of abusive detractors, who though not any less gifted in the mastery of the language mostly belonged to the clergy and, therefore, reviled him for his iconoclastic views.
In fact good grammar itself is often a class-based tool of assertion. That is perhaps why the appeal of Laloo Prasad Yadav, the best speaker in the current Indian cabinet, as a populist rabble-rouser remains higher than his proficiency in English or his skills in correct Hindi. Even the opposition knows there is none in parliament who communicates like him.
Yadav’s popularity signals the waning of the era of Gandhi, Nehru and to an extent of Ambedkar, who were later followed by Hiren Mukherjee and Bhupesh Gupta as reasonably good communicators.
Arif Mohammed Khan was known for his oratory in Urdu, and Atal Behari Vajpayee was a master of Hindi declamation. But few of them could leave an imprint on the history of the Indian parliament, as did the election of the unlettered Phoolan Devi, the low caste bandit queen who was believed to have been brutally killed by her incensed upper caste rivals.
And yet it is a pleasure to listen to the diverse range of accents and expressions India’s parliamentarians bring to the discourses that decide the destiny of a billion-plus people, and who speak more than a dozen languages and many times more dialects. More often than not it is the thought and the idea they bring to the house that matters, not so much the quality of the semantics.
Does it matter, therefore, that the Indian president’s address to parliament last week was laced with grammatical errors? Former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, lauded for his skills in both English and Hindi oratory, sounded upset with the quality of the language the Indian head of state was given to read.
And since Singh has made a point of it, it may as well be noted that towards the end of her address, President Pratibha Patil fumbled with the grammar. She said: ‘At the turn of our independence, his [Nehru’s] clarion call in these very hallowed precincts was that collectively we must act to remove poverty, ignorance, disease and the inequality of opportunity.’
Singh reportedly took exception to the phrase ‘at the turn of our independence,’ pointing out that this was bad language because he had heard about the ‘turn of the century”, but never ‘at the turn of our independence.’
There was a reference to 20 million Indians settled abroad as a ‘diaspora’. Singh correctly pointed out that diaspora had a specific reference to the scattering of the Jews outside Palestine after their Babylonian captivity. The Hindi version of the presidential address, interestingly, also could not find a word to replace ‘diaspora’.
A piquant situation has arisen. Aware that these could be glaring mistakes of semantics, the government still cannot now attempt a correction. If passed, any amendment to the president’s address would be tantamount to the house — both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha in this case — expressing its lack of confidence in the government.
The South Asian in the story had merely asked the time. The Englishman detected in the quest the possibility of a higher discourse. However, as Sartre would suggest an inflection is all that is ever needed to turn the grammar of power into a more readily understood idiom of the dispossessed. And, almost always, without losing the humour.