Why does the average Chennai bus conductor take pride in his use of coarse Tamil?

If the language spoken by bus conductors to passengers is any indicator of a city’s cultural progress, Chennai would not score high.

“Eru” (get in) “Kudu” (give) “Erangu” (alight) “Veliye va” (come out of your seats to alight) are all standard phrases uttered many times, often rudely, in a day’s trip on a Metropolitan Transport Corporation bus. These usage forms are those stripped of the respectful add-ons that proper use of Tamil demands. This is so, in spite of leaders of the two big Kazhagams and so many others being justifiably proud of the language.

Yet, no one has the answer to the question: Why has the conductor not learnt to speak in a more refined Tamil?

One explanation, although an unconvincing one, is that the normal resident of a Chennai ‘cheri’ (a cluster of houses of old) would use a Tamil that does not have the respectful suffix. But there is a crucial difference between the cheri resident and the bus conductor. If you were to address the resident in like manner, he would not mind, because that is his normal lexicon. Not so the bus conductor, however, because it would be seen as showing the man disrespect (never mind that he refuses to return the favour). Sometimes, as this story shows, the driver and conductor don't get along either.

What makes the Chennai conductor’s lack of linguistic achievement glaring is the way people from the rest of Tamil Nadu speak: a much more refined language. Someone from Coimbatore or Madurai or Tiruchi would find it positively insulting to be talked to in the style that is normal for much of this city.

Of course, this is not a 100 per cent phenomenon. There is the occasional exception, and there are even a couple of people who insist on using chaste Tamil to make announcements on board MTC buses. But then, the exception proves the rule.

Ultimately, the conductor perceives a certain power over the commuter, and probably believes it is essential to be rude to maintain that equation. But then, when passengers do not feel a sense of ownership of their city bus service, and seek better language and equally improved services, that is an unsurprising result.

If you have had a good or bad experience on a Chennai bus, why not share it here?