Updated: July 4, 2011 16:08 IST

Chutney meri, ketchup teri

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An excellent introduction to Hinglish, what it represents and those who represent it…

Even a purist recognises that language is an organic, dynamic entity, whose growth or decline it is almost impossible to check in any way. English in India has raised the hackles of practically everyone who has had anything to do with it. Either it is risible, or it is elitist. But now, as a more self-confident (if also self-conscious) nation since 1991, what do we make of the phenomenon called Hinglish?

This book, the proceeds of a conference in Mumbai two years ago, is an excellent first step towards understanding Hinglish, what it represents and those who represent it. Broadly speaking, the writers and scholars here are somewhat dismayed by Hinglish; the linguists are excited; the filmmakers and admen say, naturally, that they are only reflecting the reality; those not from North India decry the hegemony of Hindi; and the younger participants in the conference take it as a matter of course, while resisting the easy correlation that Hinglish equals Indian youth.

There is not space to dwell on each paper as it deserves, so I shall make a quick overflight, with a fell swoop now and then. Harish Trivedi is at his acerbic best in his Foreword, quoting a Hinglish ghazal from 1887, questioning Rushdie's credentials as a Hindi speaker and artfully destabilising Ezekiel's “Very Indian Poems in Indian English” (which I've never found funny) with the question, “Are his other poems in British English then?” He also asks if Hinglish is English in Hindi or Hindi in English, and raises the pertinent point that chutney is a spice, not the main course. (“Chutnefied English” was Rushdie's coinage.) Later in the book, Rahul Kansal insists Hinglish is a result of the ‘ketchupisation' of Hindi rather than the ‘chutnefication' of English. He has a point.

Trivedi also identifies Hinglish with branding, as do others later. He calls it the “language of heartless covetousness”. Rupert Snell, that flag-bearer of Hindi in the West – the Notes on Contributors also call him a “co-collaborator for this conference”; now is that Hinglish? – bemoans the loss of perfectly good Hindi words to their English counterparts. But he also laments the “purifying” of Hindi after Partition, with Sanskrit neologisms taking the place of Persian and Urdu, and suggests Hinglish could be a reaction to shuddh Hindi.

Linguist's take

Tej K. Bhatia rejects Snell, considering the use of Hinglish an expression of creativity. Bhatia is a linguist, and like the other linguists here has no use for an aesthetic approach to the subject. Hinglish is food for thought, and food for papers, and there may be exciting discoveries ahead. Pramod K. Nayar describes the use of Hinglish in the “Pink Chaddi” campaign against the Rama Sene, and Mathangi Krishnamurthy of English in call centres. These are at best outlines of a great amount of work that needs to be done on Hinglish in the Internet Age. Strangely, there is no paper which focusses on text messages.

Rita Kothari has a sound paper on Hinglish in Hindi cinema, but to my mind does not go far enough in apportioning the blame, which is right and proper of her. (There is a harder-hitting piece in

Caravan, May 2011.) She mentions… “the familiarity of the audience with certain English words, allowing filmmakers to substitute one language for the other, without worrying about the ideologies that once made English and Hindi adversaries.”

But what made Indian audiences familiar with these words? We look in vain to the filmmakers for an answer. Mahesh Bhatt is vaguely regretful about the demise of Urdu. Gulzar takes the curious stand that he doesn't use more English, his characters do! Nandita Das and her fellow scriptwriter of "Firaaq", Shuchi Kothari, have a dynamic dialogue which ends with Das saying, “Linguistic credibility enables regional cinema to maintain its emotional sincerity but the hegemony of Hindi language films continues to marginalise these films.”

The hegemony doesn't end there; one contributor to this book, Daya Kishan Thussu, actually writes that “[Hindi] is the language of India's film industry, which annually produces more films than Hollywood.”

Certainly, more work has to be done on the regional mixtures. Rohini Mokashi-Punekar in a well-executed paper acquaints us with Nagamese, the lingua Indica of Nagaland, where there are 23 local languages, all mutually unintelligible. No one wants Nagamese, but it's been around for 200 years. This is fascinating: Depending on the speaker's social class and context, there is (1) a Nagamese with a limited Assamese lexicon spoken among uneducated Nagas [of] different tribes, (2) a Nagamese with more Hindi/Urdu loanwords spoken in public domains or market and trade circles…, and (3) a Nagamese with more English loanwords spoken by educated Nagas….

Interesting insights

The paper I found most engaging was G.J.V. Prasad's “Tamil, Hindi, English”, perhaps it harked back to my own roots. He doesn't quote A.K. Ramanujan, and packs a witty screed with insights such as, “In India, we claim that the water changes every ten miles and the language every forty…. So we can move from Punjabi to Tamil almost seamlessly, if we actually take the physical route….”

I'm tempted to try it. Some linguist should, anyway.

Prasad comments well on R.K. Narayan: His “English was always under the pressure of the Tamil language.” English, he says, is so much part of the (Brahmin) Tamil's heritage that, “English can mark the Tamilian [sic], but Hindi/Punjabi marks the outsider! Thus, English can become a marker of regional identity while Hindi becomes the global marker of the metropolitan or national identity.”

Dr. Rita Kothari had asked me two years ago to attend this conference, lekin tab kaphi tensiontha, enakku time-y kidakkalai. I don't repine too much; I'm not sure I'd have contributed much that was original. This is an important moment in linguistics and literature, as we watch what is possibly the birth of a new language, or more than one. As Prasad concludes, “Watch this space after ten years.”

Chutnefying English: The phenomenon of Hinglish, Edited by Rita Kothari and Rupert Snell, Penguin India, 2011, p.207, Rs. 299.

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