The theatre of English language

Pawan Singh

To begin on a cliché is helpful sometimes. Personally, for me, it sets the ball rolling and the writing process begins. Hence, I start with one. Here goes then…

In a country long obsessed with Bollywood, cricket and religion, there is clearly a need for new obsessions. Since it takes time to invent new ones, we could identify them from the existing pet ideas that often go unnoticed.

Walking around in random neighbourhoods in Delhi and Hyderabad, the most common poster that catches your eye is “Speak fluent English within 15 days”. While some promise a longer guarantee period, others are replete with misspellings in the boldest font they can have. They are interestingly named as well. Some are perhaps named after the instructor, such as Venkat or Aakash, others believe in propagating faith systems by surrogacy, such as Radhaswamy or Shiv-Shambhu. There are those that sound like Irani cafes in Hyderabad and go by Moonlight or Rose-way and then there are others that use attributes associated with speaking English, like ‘Self-confidence’ centre, or ‘Impressive Words’ Institute. While these are only a handful of names that I’ve seen on posters and pamphlets, my personal favourite, where I’d have gone, had I the need, is Elizabeth. Using the Queen’s name for a place that purports to teach “Her English” is certainly a mark of authenticity and quality.

I also had the doubtful fortune of knowing some folks who attended one of these programs and insisted that I speak to them in English. My aunt, who usually talks to me in Punjabi, once unsettled me at the entrance of her house when she spoke in her thick-like-cream accent, “How doo you doo?” And I smiled apologetically to mask my “suddenly not doing so great” demeanour. She got confused and nervously uttered, “Thank God” and I followed suit. Understandably, she was trying to get as much practice as possible but how could she do it with me when all our lives we had only known each other’s rustic Punjabi selves?

Another cousin who had lived all his life in a small town in Uttar Pradesh picked up a book at random to learn everyday English phrases and learned by rote sections of it, just like he would for exams. When he visited us one summer with his newfangled anglicised self, he looked in the mirror before addressing me. Apparently, he had only learnt to exclaim in English, and without context. So when I told him that my best friend was coming over, he looked pensive and said “What a shame!” I smiled at this subtle disapproval and told him that he would be staying over. His response was “Bravo!” He beamed at me for appreciation and I blessed him with both hands.

Another unenlightened relative of mine who once travelled from Punjab to Delhi on a plane for the first time complained of jetlag. She bandied the word about as if that was the most natural bodily response to any air travel. The third time she did it, I was compelled to explain it to her that she wasn’t jetlagged but just a wee-bit excited. She grimaced and muttered something under her breath to the effect that I thought I knew too much. Though I did, to cheer her up, I had to tell her I was just pulling her leg. That certainly got her confused, as she looked down at her leg for signs of elongation!

And on several occasions I have encountered this obsession to speak in the English language or drop English words that sound impressive. One feels like a trophy offspring if one can speak fluent English if none else in the family do. I’ve been through many such performances at family get-togethers where speaking ‘good’ English or merely reading the newspaper to the rest of them was a hot item. That was then but now I refuse to be subjected to such abuse. And of course it’s the speech that matters. Understanding is mostly irrelevant. For good reason, too! If only the Queen herself was to witness one of these performances or attend the English speaking course at the Elizabeth Institute!

The author is a PhD student at the University of California at San Diego, USA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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