India & Its Language

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Apr 24 2003, 05:30am hrs
For a country with hundreds of languages and an oral tradition going back centuries, India strangely enough has a huge language problem. Actually, many of them. First, there is that certain lack of basic politeness in public discourse. Civilised dialogue is what keeps trust, accommodation and mutual respect going, and provides the broad context in which compromises and solutions are reached. But what you see and hear everyday is harsh and extreme rhetoric; either that or the heady, preachy stuff. Either way, it puts you off and makes you want to muzzle the speaker.

Second, there is little humour or wit, at least in our public writing and speech. When I was in college, I used to avidly follow the middle column of V K Trivedi in the Times of India, a man who was Indias one and only true satirist. On his heels came Jug, who is now getting erratic and, dare I say, even distinctly unfunny at times. Outside of these two, there is no one else. A whole genre of linguistic expression unexplored, and what is worse, unmissed.

But the really interesting manifestation of the language problem is when imported concepts are translated locally. What pray is the Indian equivalent of Would you go out with me Try as I might, and I asked plenty of people, I could find none in Hindi. There are many variations on I like you or Will you marry me but none for that first tentative step in courtship. Same for all this new stuff in technology. The defence ministry, like almost every government department, tries to promote Hindi in both internal use and scholarly research built around its work, but just try translating something like targets of opportunity or sensitive site exploitation or deconflicting the airspace.

Remember the international furore in 1998 when, soon after Indias nuclear tests, Prime Minister Vajpayee gave his big bomb speech which was taken as a boast. To a rural Rajasthani audience, how else can you explain what India had done except to say humne ek bahut bada bomb banaya hain...

The other side of the coin is that once we import it, we refuse to let go. Nowhere else have I found serious scholars and the press use words like abscond, dacoit, paramour and (my favourite) polity. Everyday communication is in fact not just a victim of translation, but also some weird cultural amalgamation. The presence of Pakistani diplomats frequently produces warped behaviour even from seasoned Indian diplomats and journalists, and the Adaabs, and Inshallahs start rolling out in a self-conscious and contrived manner.

In the infamous Sanjay Dutt-Chotta Shakeel tapes, the conversation revolves around not some perfidious plot but around first class, bhai. I counted 18 instances of this in the transcripts. No, our major movie stars are not any more inarticulate than the rest of us. This is how a lot of Indian conversations take place, full of awkward triflings. It may be that not only do we not know how to talk properly in English, but that we dont know it in Hindi or any other local tongue either.

The really amusing thing is that almost every Indian language group finds the language, and especially English, of every other group irresistibly funny. But while we may all merrily laugh at each other, what about the poor company doing medical data transcription in Mumbai which was pulled up by its clients for this translation by one its workers: The patients mother said he suffered a seizure while shopping and chasing pennies. Why on earth would a patient chase pennies He wouldnt. Actually, what was dictated by the doctor was The patients mother said he suffered a seizure while shopping at J C Penneys.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors