Saturday, October 20, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L


Making English an Indian language
Khushwant Singh

I am entirely in favour of making English an Indian language on our terms. Maul it, misuse it, mangle it out of shape but make it our own bhasha. The English may not recognise it as their language; they can stew in their own juice. It is not their baap ki jaidaad — ancestral property.

Professor K.S. Yadurajan who writes a regular column for The Deccan Herald agrees with me. A compilation of his articles Current English: A Guide for the User of English in India (Oxford) published a few weeks ago has on its cover some common Indianisms: pin-drop silence, foreign-returned, eat crow, very most urgent, Sir, your good name?

There is a lot of useful and amusing information in the compilation. What is the origin of All Fools’ Day? The professor explains: "With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, the New Year was officially moved from March 25 to January 1. But people were slow to accept the change. Many still went about making New Year visits (on April 1). Their more alert friends naturally made fun of them. They became April Fools."

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"Such innocent mirth could not be allowed to die. Long after the calendar confusion ceased to bother anyone, fun lovers everywhere indulged in practical jokes on their friends, making April Fools of them. The practice has continued to this day. Even the media has not been able to resist the temptation. British television once showed Italian farmers harvesting spaghetti from trees.

"In retrospect we can see that good old Noah who sent out the dove to find out dry land after the Flood was the first April Fool.

"In a charming essay, Charles Lamb (Essay of Elia, 1823) makes April 1 a celebration of all the famous fools of history. (Alexander the Great is included in this distinguished crowd, shown like a baby crying, as there were no more worlds to conquer.) There is much to be said for setting apart a day as All Fools’ Day. ‘The more laughable blunders a man shall commit in your company, the more tests he giveth you that he will not betray you or overreach you.’ In short, the fool is an honest, simple, lovable person. Let’s celebrate him."

He quotes an amusing use of the word flabbergasted. Instead of being overwhelmed on being introduced to Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their visit to Delhi an Indian said he was flabbergasted. "At a reception given at the British High Commission in New Delhi the editor of an Urdu newspaper is reported to have welcomed them with the outburst: ‘Your Majesty I am really flabbergasted at meeting you.’

"To be flabbergasted means to be overwhelmed with shocked amazement. I am flabbergasted at your effrontery. She was flabbergasted at the casual way he spoke about his affairs. How then could the worthy editor say he was ‘flabbergasted’ at meeting the Prince? The Prince (and the late Princess) must have been flabbergasted at this welcome."

A wealth of information is to be found in Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases. It quotes a poem by an English lady who after a brave attempt gave up learning Tamil:

In Common usage here a chit

Serves for our business or our wit.

Bankshal’s place to lodge our ropes,

And Mango orchards all are Topes.

Gowdown usurps the ware-house place

Compound denotes each walled space.

To Dufterkhana, Ottor, tanks

The English language owes no thanks;

Since office, Essence, fish, pond shew

We need not words so harsh and new.

Much more I could such words expose,

But Ghauts and Dawks the list shall close;

Which in plain English is no more

Than Wharf and Post expressed before.

Most of us use the expression ‘pay through one’s nose’ for having to pay too much. Few know its origin. Professor Yadurajan clarifies: "Nobody knows for certain how the phrase arose. One suggestion is that it derives from the nose tax levied by the Danes on the Irish in the ninth century. Those who did not pay the tax had their noses cut. Be that as it may, the phrase inspired no less a man than Arnold Bennett to compose this limerick:

There was a young man of Montrose

Who had pockets in none of his clothes.

When asked by his lass

Where he carried his brass,

He said, ‘Darling, I pay through the nose.’

Then there are put downers: sharp, witty, riposte, or rejoinders. "The irrepressible Bernard Shaw was a past master at this art. Shaw and Chesterton were as much different in their personalities as in their principles. Shaw was tall and lean, Chesterton portly and round. ‘Looking at you one would think there was a famine in England’, said Chesterton. Shaw shot back, ‘Looking at you one would think you caused it.’ But even Shaw got more than what he had asked for when he told his wife: ‘Isn’t it true, dear, that male judgement is superior to female judgement?’ ‘Of course, dear,’ replied the wife, ‘after all you married me and I married you’.

"But perhaps the most famous put down in English is the retort made by Wilkes when Lord Sandwich — yes, it is after him that the popular snack is named — shouted at him: ‘You, Wilkes, will either die on the gallows or from syphilis.’

‘That depends, my Lord,’ said Wilkes, ‘on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.’"

Sarson ka saga

It is not the national anthem of Punjab but certainly its national diet during autumn and winter months. Just as the summer months spell the mango season, from October till the end of February it is sarson ka saag. In rural Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Western Uttar Pradesh they eat it day after day with blobs of fresh butter with either makkai (maize) or bajra (millet) rotis and dahi (yoghurt) and wash it down with glasses of chchach or lassi.

I have been addicted to it since my childhood. I believe it is the best food to keep the stomach in good order. What I rue is that most people don’t even know how tasty it can be because they don’t take the trouble to make it properly. I have sampled it in dhabas, hotels, restaurants and Punjabi homes and am disappointed that the stuff marketed by Punjab Government is as tasteless as cooked grass.

Proper sarson ka saag needs a lot of culinary skill and many hours to make. The recipe for making it has been passed down from generation to generation. It used to be the grandmothers’ speciality who handed it down to their daughters and grand-daughters till cooks (laangrees) took over. So it has been in my family. Chandan Singh, my cook for 50 years learnt it from my mother’s maid-servant-cum-saag-maker, Bhajno. So I eat the tastiest sarson ka saag. Chandan Singh is not very eager to make it because it takes a lot of time and trouble. I have to bully and cajole him.

A lot of ingredients go into making this saag. I list some of them with their Indian names as I do not know their English equivalents: Mustard (sarson) leaves and stems, palak, carrot, shalgam, bathoa, soya, methi. These should be ground and cooked for at least three hours. Then ginger, green chollia, onion (fried to brown) maize and gram flour have to be added. Then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

If you want to savour the taste of well-made saag, do not smother it with blobs of butter or eat it with makkai or bajra rotis because they lie heavy on the stomach of a person who does no physical work. It tastes best with a slice of brown bread. There is nothing to equal it to keep you in good shape. It may not give you the strength that spinach gave Pop Ege the Sailorman, but it will give you a feeling of well-being.

The reason why

Santa purchased a new car. He started taking a longer route to reach his office. This baffled Banta. One day Banta asked Santa, "Why are you coming to the office by a very very long route ever since you have purchased this new car?" Santa replied, "You know when I purchased this car, my dealer told me that this car gives a very good average on long route."

(Courtesy: Dr Narinder Arora, Chandigarh)

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