Return of the native

Some cultural-linguistic transitions, and identities subsumed by symbols

December 09, 2018 12:05 am | Updated 12:05 am IST

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

When I was a child my mother would take my brother and me to her childhood home in Nellore every summer. We took the train from the Secunderabad station. There, she rushed us past shops stacked with biscuit packets, brightly painted tin toys, and Chandamama magazines. We dodged people with large baskets singing out their wares: ‘ Idli-dosaa, Idlidosaaa !’, ‘ Chai, Cofeeeeaa !’

Train journeys in India are so marvellously and uniquely Indian, I have to remind myself that they are, in fact, a brainchild of the British.

James Broun-Ramsay, the first Marquess of Dalhousie, Governor General of India from 1848 to 1856, first conceived of the Railways in India, intending it to be a “series of public monuments vastly surpassing in grandeur, the aqueducts of Rome, the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, and the temples, palaces and mausoleums of the great Moghul monument.” Clearly, the British intended their stamp on India to be both indelible and outsized.

During those train journeys to Nellore, my brother and I vied for the top berth. We watched as stations came and receded into the distance. One of the stations that arrived late into the night was Bitragunta.

As a rail station, Bitragunta is without distinction. But its unusually long platform, scalloped window awnings, and slanting red roof hint at a hidden history. In the late 19th and until the mid-20th centuries, Bitragunta had a railway yard and one of the largest mechanical locomotive turntable sheds in India. As an important railway junction, the town had over a thousand railway quarters, which housed English supervisers, engineers, officials, priests, teachers, and their families.

Around that time, my great-grandmother was a young girl in Nellore. While she lived in gosham , or veiled segregation from men outside the family, just 40 km away at the Bitragunta Railways Institute, Englishmen and their women danced together, twirling and laughing to western music. Men and women indulged in quaint English rituals: card parties and evening soirees and tea served with napkins and doilies and tiny dollops of milk.

Bitragunta also has a personal connection for me. On one those summers in Nellore, when I was seven or eight, I put on a new dress. It was a western-style dress, shimmery and long and frilly. My grandfather sat on his favourite cane chair in the verandah reading a crisp copy of The Hindu .

“Tatiah, Tatiah,” I called out to him, twirling round in my dress. “Look at me! How do I look?”

“Class, Amma!” He said, with a nod of his head and a teasing smile. “You look just like a Bitragunta Dorasani.”

Dorasani is the Telugu word for memsahib, and a Bitragunta Dorasani is a Telugu woman trying to be European. The term connotes a sense of someone trying out affectations and finally appearing slightly absurd.

I was delighted with his answer, and so it was for years: “Tatiah, how do I look?” and “Just like a Bitragunta Dorasani.” It was a little joke between us.

In ‘Little England’

While Bitragunta seemed foreign to my grandfather, to the English who had settled there, it was ‘Little England’. Under the sizzling sun, the English played long hours of cricket. In a land of gourds, rice and coconut they tried to grow their odd, layered cabbages, tart rhubarb, and little red strawberries.

Over time, the locals too began to adopt English customs and manners. Our household menus acquired cabbage (though we stir-fried it with mustard and cumin seeds and coconut) and weak tea served with napkins and tiny dollops of milk.

Soon there was a new language of opportunity — English. As an English language education became de rigueur for upper middle-class families, our native voices started to fade on our tongues. For relatives in the village, my pidgin Telugu was both a source of amusement and admiration: I was now so westernised and I had no need for my mother tongue.

Over time, English culture began to seem more sophisticated than our own indigenous identities. Even as children, we were aware of the cringe that being too-Indian elicited among our peers. We boasted about how badly we spoke our mother tongue. Books meant only English books; we would not be caught dead with, say, a Telugu magazine. We groaned over the Indian languages (not one, but two!) that we were forced to learn in our schools. We even entertained vague suspicions that our Indian language teachers were half a rung lower on the social ladder.

The loss too

In a globalised world, where borders are porous, learning English as a native language has been useful. But there is a loss, too.

I have begun to re-learn Telugu, starting with the alphabet. It is an uphill task and I wonder if I will ever become fluent in it. Perhaps one needs to grow up in a language and context to fully understand the lilts and the peculiarities that make a joke as funny as it should be or a story’s meaning strike at the heart. With Telugu, I am in a glass-bottomed boat travelling over boldly coloured coral reefs, but my fingers cannot feel the chill of the water or the texture of the bony reefs below.

Perhaps my grandfather was right: I have become something of a Bitragunta Dorasani after all. With their legacy of cultural colonisation, the British have left a mark as indelible and outsized as the Railways, with its engines and metal tracks and imposing stations that still stand as monuments to power.

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