|Ethnicity was now chic, and the big fat Indian wedding bested most. Consumerism grew hip. Colonialism went camp. It’s the tradesmen who use the front entrance now because they are the ones who keep people in business.
By Gautam Mukherjee
Politicians may argue about semantics, but for all of India, the language itself has changed for the vast majority. The Oxbridge accent is out, desi English, our very own creation, rules.
The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.
—Sultan Mehmet of Turkey on his conquest of Byzantium from the Romans after 1,123 years and 18 days of their rule
The posh Indians with an Oxbridge education from pre-independent times spoke funny. Their accents were nominally upper-class English, but somehow over-enunciated. It was the strain of remembered preservation surrounded by the saltier cadenced speech of multiple Indian languages.
The foreign accent was nevertheless a valued acquisition. It announced their Brown Sahib sensibilities, and suggested they should be taken for English. Too bad it was a trapped, piggy-in-the-middle sound, likely as not, to not always ring true. It wasn’t, after all, underpinned by the insouciance and sliced vowels bred by the white man’s burden and the privileges of empire.
Unfazed, irrespective of paradoxes and contraindications, this top rung of Macaulay’s children, the ‘loyal natives’, believed completely in the British way, just as he intended them to. They were, carried into the independent 1960’s and seventies, the neo-colonials you couldn’t ridicule into silence.
On desi shores, these accents, their accompanying mannerisms, the cold weather clothes, the liking for Worcester Sauce and breaded sausages, the studied ignorance of ‘native’ culture, were all of a piece.
The mercantile banias on the other hand, who were often richer than these pretenders, laughed up their sleeves. But seizing opportunities for profit being the bania way, they scraped and bowed with professional gusto, letting the Brown Sahib think he was as good as the genuine article, and simply overcharged for such affectation.
The home-grown English speakers, those educated in our government and private institutions with their sprinkling of poignant white missionaries and Lord Jimming educators, were largely condemned to a second and, it must be said, third, rung of Macaulay’s intended edifice.
These English speakers, the species going back over a hundred years, were letter perfect meal ticketers, persons who read English as a ‘foreign’ language, and thought in other, altogether more comforting mother tongues.
These people, much more numerous since the 1830s when Macaulay introduced Indian-English education, composed the rich seam of out-and-out babudom.
Babudom that has been lampooned but persists, with their ‘preponing’ preponderance towards ‘doing the needful’ and by their super-heroic ‘swinging into action’.
Caricatured, but unconcerned, is the babu, now migrated into the 21st century, having grown up generation upon generation with derived ‘power’, waiting for discretionary ‘orders’ from ‘ higher-ups’.
Babu, on the third rung of this tyranny of how one spoke English, didn’t care about being bested by the ‘mixed up’ produce from our homegrown public schools. What were they after all: sing-song hybrids, syntax shot through a tarka of gas/ coal-fired steam? Nothing pucca about it.
Banquo’s ghost at this table was indubitably Anglo-Saxon-Norman English. The rest, Scots, Irish, the Welsh, in the Indian experience, were ‘Tommies’, low caste, and not fit to emulate.
They were familiar enough in the bazaars and kothas, in Rudyard Kipling and John Masters’ books, speaking their pidgin, and dipping their wicks. Dipped they were into the same inkpots as the natives. Sometimes this introduced a sprinkling of blue and grey eyes, to take on, where the Greeks left off.
But, for the native Oxbridge set, it was an unchanging England, a fancied, Bertie Woosterised period between the wars, with surviving notes of High Raj Victoriana and pre-Great War bucolic. And, later, troubling lashings of Harold Laski from the LSE.
On the khaki side of the fence, there was a Sandhurst-IMA variant, complete with bottle-brush moustache, harrumph, tweed, and cravat.
Time, they used to say, moves slowly in the colonies.
Then, stirrings, as the world began to change. ‘Sentiment’, as they also say in the stock market, shifted. Socialism became shop-worn. Class, that caste-wealth-birth triumvirate, was much dented, scratched, holed. The new up-to-date was to be part of a sarkari ‘reserved’ model, but you had to be born to it.
Colour too, in this most racist of countries, went in for a makeover—‘wheatish’ became seen as contrast to fair and lovely, and not automatically ugly.
Ethnicity was now chic, and the big fat Indian wedding bested most. Consumerism grew hip. Colonialism went camp. It’s the tradesmen who use the front entrance now because they are the ones who keep people in business.
Meanwhile, the accented Oxbridgers went obsolete, even the doughty specimens who occasionally made plummy foreign ministers. Instead, our once minister of everything, and now the President of the republic, Pranab Mukherjee, speaks with astoundingly rounded vowels, and doesn’t worry a bit. Oxbridge is now more useful as entry code in class-ridden Britain, than it is in India.
The current-dayers go to Harvard and Yale, their claws sharp and their accents drawn tight on a Yankee leash. On the way back, standing under Nelson and the pigeons on his hat at Trafalgar Square, they can watch parcels of Patels, Noons, Mittals, Pauls, Hindujas and Tatas sweeping by. And none of them worried a whit about their broad Jinja or Jullunder or Navsari or Chennai or Bengaluruspeak. They even have a good deal of that Caucasian insouciance aforementioned, as if it rubbed off on them like whitewash.
And so, we’ve arrived at the digital age, brought on by resurgence, our place in the sun, a smaller world, technology, interdependence, money.
Life has become a multispoker, overlays, blends, bhangra-reggae, tip o’ the hat. There is no need for compromise. The information highway is faster than any dictionary. Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and VS Naipaul; mellifluous Vikram Seth, newer claimants, with their ‘finest’ use of the English language, is certainly cause for pride, yes.
But if it’s hair you want to let down, and a voice you want to call your own, let’s talk chutney, and raise a cheer for the pioneering work of Salman Rushdie.
That exuberance, which is so Indian, has broken out of its confines and not just on the written page. But let’s look for barometers anyway. Cast your eye over the three big Bombay books of yesteryear, all with their ‘we don’t need glossaries and italics for the goralog’.
And let’s not forget the delicious desi gaalis, full-throated, immense. It’s alright for Suketu Mehta in Maximum City and Vikram Chandra in Sacred Games, huge mothers, both books. But the third tome, Shantaram, was written by Australian Gregory David Roberts. And now there’s an equally gargantuan sequel, The Mountain Shadow, continuing Shantaram’s anarchic adventures and philosophical musings in underworld Mumbai.
Confidence has come. Everything else will follow Insha’allah, including the solution to today’s semantic and real problems, and the success of masala bonds.