Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 22, March 1-15, 2018

A guide to the way we speak

Two pages looking at books

The “issueless” couple – who could they be? If you are thinking it is domestic partners with no marital woes of any sort, you’d be so wrong. In the Indian context, the word “issueless” is a stand-in for “childless”. Sometimes though, the word family could refer to just the wife, minus the kids. You could ask a man, “How is the missus/Mrs.?” or “How is the family?” and it would mean the same thing. If the response is the wife, or another family member, is “serious,” it means they are ill, possibly at death’s door. Be prepared to commiserate. Like some insurance policy, the person can soon “expire” or be “no more.”

If all of this has left you unfazed, chances are you are already familiar with the nuances of Indian English, which is a different beast from British Standard English or its American counterpart. But, as always, we could all do with a little more gyan, or information. This is where S. Muthiah’s Words in Indian English – A Guide to English Communication in South Asia promises to come in handy. It turns out, it is not just spoken English which is rife with Indianisms. Even headlines of English newspapers in India have words which don’t always make sense to readers unfamiliar with the local language. What to do!

Here’s how the book was born in the first place: On a flight from Madras to Bangalore, the author had heard fellow passengers, Americans, struggle to decipher terms in The Hindu and The Indian Express. What is a rail roko or a state-wide bandh to a foreign traveler? In 1991, the veteran journalist came out with a book which could help foreigners and locals alike understand terms that have found their way into our periodicals. Now, the book gets a much-needed update. The first entry of the new edition reads Aadhar: The Universal Identity Number of an Individual in India. (Or that without which an Indian citizen cannot officially exist even if Yama, the God of Death, is not planning to come get him just yet.)

Naturally, some words in Indian English pertain to local food and drink. Soon enough you will know your sambar (a thin lentil-based curry) from your sambol (a pungent relish with a rice meal). But don’t be surprised if nutritionists here advise you to eat a lot of grams, short for protein-rich lentils. Green gram, for instance, refers to moong beans; besan is the flour of Bengal gram. Don’t let the term Bombay Duck fool you – it is salted fish eaten on India’s West Coast. (While we are on the topic of ducks which are not birds: A cricketer can be out for duck, or without having scored any runs, which would be tragic for his fans.) You may be put off by “dust tea”, a term for tea made from the thick dust left over after packaging leaf tea. In the hands of a good tea vendor, the chaiwala, even this can transform into a halfway decent beverage.

Tell an American you are from Madras and chances are they will talk about bleeding madras, the plaid-patterned fabric. “The fabric was born in colonial India,” The New York Times says, “a marriage of Scottish tartans and traditional Madras cottons, and popularised in the United States in the 1930s by the Hathaway Shirt Company.” The colours of the shirt or dress, made from vegetable dyes, would bleed and change with each wash, which was part of its appeal.

If you are an outsider in India you might as well come to terms with Rahukalam, 90 minutes of each day of the week, which is considered inauspicious for any new venture, be it a rocket launch or a trip to the local bazaar. Or the dangerous new breed of people Rakshaks, defenders of political dogma of one kind or the other, moral police in short. Different from Rakshasa or Demon. The media also took to referring to demonetisation as De-Mon. There are also new acronyms that pertain to other old devil, taxes: G.S.T., the Goods and Services Tax; T.D.S, Tax Deducted at Source; and PAN or Permanent Account Number.

But let’s come back to pleasanter things. If a flower seller at the bazaar pesters you to make a “boni/bowny,” they are asking you to make the first purchase of the day and bring them luck. Don’t be a kanjus; just do the needful. In official correspondence, this expression “doing the needful” suggests that the other, who is no intellectual slouch or buddhu, knows what needs to be done in the situation and doesn’t need step-by-step instruction. The phrase has gone around the globe thanks to call centres and India-based tech companies. As has the befuddling “kindly revert back”. Thanking you in advance (TIA).

There are times when it can all be “too much.” If a word, phrase or expression is a head scratcher, ask around and get to the bottom of it. Don’t get all pedantic – as long as no rules of grammar are broken, it is no big deal. Smile, jot down new terms in the “additional words” section in the book. Some of the words you collect could well stand the test of time and become part of the lexicon; you’ll laugh over some of them after they pass into disuse. Surely, it can’t get “more better” than that.

– by Vijaysree Venkatraman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *