You knowing English?

Chances are you can't get a peon's or a security guard's job in many parts of Bangalore if you speak no English, says BAGESHREE S.

Commuter asks autodriver: "Indiranagar?" The verb that conveys the question — "Bartheera?" or "Will you come?" — is implied in the arch of the eyebrow. Driver jerks his head in the direction of the back seat if the answer is "Yes". If it is "No" (which is more likely the case as every true blue Bangalorean knows) he might just drive away or grimace as if he has heard a bad word or shake his head with a smile that seems to suggest a "Sorry", all depending on the mood of the moment.

A masterly piece of non-verbal communication, no doubt. That's all very well if things run smoothly from this point to the destination. But if some hitch were to crop up — again, more likely, ranging from taking what seems to be a circuitous route and meter that jumps at a heart-stopping rate to neither of the two parties having that precious 50 paise change — what unfolds will be a scene straight from the Tower of Babel.

Not surprising, considering that Ajay Saluja from Bombay, who works for an IT giant in Bangalore, and Mahesha, SSLC pass from a village near Chitradurga who's desperately trying to make a living, don't speak a common language — literally and metaphorically. Ajay has spoken nothing but English and Hindi all his life. And nothing in his "natural environment" in his current city of residence — workplace, circle of friends, entertainment joints — compels him to learn any other language. And he can get by in most "street situations" with a bit of Hindi. Mahesh too has studied English as a compulsory paper from Standard V, but nothing else in his environment back in his rain-starved village taught him English.

And the situation being as lopsided as it is in our city, it doesn't look like Ajay will ever be obliged to — either by law or the sheer compulsions of everyday situations — learn the language of the land. And that translates to: Mahesha better learn some "communicable English" if he wants to get on with life in the city known for it hospitality, in recent times to even a fairly large expat population.

Just consider the number of blue-collar jobs that, of late, require the person to know communicable English — a "service rule" sometimes stated and sometimes implied. Drivers, salespersons in shops, door-to-door sellers, servers in restaurants, pizza delivery boys, peons, parking lot assistants, security personnel in shopping complexes and residential apartments... An impressive list.

The demand for English-speaking peons and security people is not uniform through the city. For instance, the situation is not the same on Commercial Street and on D.V.G. Road. But the trend is fast catching up in what were once "our local areas". Consider, for instance, how fluently salespeople in the factory outlets of big labels on Ring Road in Banashakari III Stage speak English.

Autodriver Raghunathan, born and brought up in Kanyamukari, has watched English creep more and more into our everyday lives over his 20-year stay in Bangalore. He has passed Standard 10 and holds a diploma in powerloom weaving, but drives an auto because of economic compulsions. "I can't speak English fluently, though I can understand it. I can get by because I speak Kannada, Hindi and Tamil. But it's definitely not easy for guys who know only Kannada," he says. He plans to learn English over the next couple of years. "Nobody was born with English written on their tongues, right?" he asks, and adds with pride that his son in Standard Four knows more English and Hindi than Tamil.

Ask employers and you learn about the Anglicisation of the city. Suhail Yusuff, who runs Radio House on Brigade Road and is the Secretary of Brigade's Shops and Establishments Association, says that English-speaking skills are "seriously looked into" before employing someone. After all, an employer carries the "image of a place" on his shoulders.

Adds P. Ravindranath, who runs Private Eye, a security service agency: "We test the applicants on their knowledge of reading, writing and speaking English. Anyone who scores less than five on a scale of 10 is disqualified." Some companies, especially MNCs, place a special emphasis on "high quality" English and do their own round of interview before they hire a security person, he adds.

And if you thought it was a phenomenon restricted to the private sector, DCP Traffic East, M.A. Salim, will help you open your eyes a bit wider. He points out that the increased emphasis on computerisation in the police department goes hand in hand with the accent on not just officers but also constables having a working knowledge of English. "Most computer software require a degree familiarity with English."

Moreover, with the bourgeoning of BPO and IT companies, there is a big surge in the non-Kannadiga population in the city, which too needs to be policed. One can well imagine a Tower of Babel situation similar to the one we started with between Constable Channa Basavanna and a Shillong-born BPO employee riding back home well past midnight.

Being a government machinery, the police department does not put down knowledge of English as a necessary qualification to become a constable. But without doubt, some knowledge of computer operations and English would help, concedes DCP Salim. "These days we actually have graduates and post-graduates in the department who know English and that's an asset."

English, the "global tongue", we have been saying, is the language to learn if you want to move up in life. In fact, the entire controversy about whether or not one ought to be taught English from Class One in government schools centres on this social mobility debate. But it does look like one needs English in our city of endless (fine print = unequal) opportunities not just to move up but even to hang on to the measly spot you're standing right now.

The next best lingo

"More than 70 per cent of people in my apartment complex are Hindi-speaking and that's the `official language' of sorts here!" says Varalakshmi Ramaswamy, who lives in an upmarket apartment in Koramangala.

The rest, including domestic help, have learnt Hindi for the lack of choice. The degree and the kind of Hindi spoken vary, though. While a domestic help speaks "kitchen Hindi" (replete with "bartan manjna", "kapda dhona"... ) the cool kids speak Hinglish (the "dil maange more" variety). Plug into the city's most happening FM station, and you hear nothing but Hinglish all the time.

With a huge number of businessmen, professionals and in recent years even labourers moving into Bangalore from up north, Hindi is the next big thing after English in many parts of Bangalore. `If you don't know English, better know at least Hindi' attitude is all-pervasive. Unlike a city such as Chennai, Bangalore was never the hotbed of anti-Hindi agitation. But situations when it is simply assumed that everybody here knows Hindi, if not English, does get the goat of those who don't see why they "ought to" know Hindi.

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