It’s often said that English is the second langage in India, and cetainly that’s true when Hindi speakers from the North are doing business with their colleagues from the South, who speak the Dravidian languages of Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu or Kannada. Some say English is the glue that has held India together, although the extensive railway has a comparable claim, while my travelling companion Shwetank believes that the Civil Service is the historical reason. (Whatever it was, it seems to me as an outsider during the Indian general elections that belief in democracy is what holds India together now. That and cricket: "Ek desh ek junoon"—one nation, one obsession—the TV ads for the Indian Premier League say.)
But it’s also equally accurate to describe English as an alternative language which educated speakers of the same language will employ if they determine that it’s the better language to express a particular idea, switching unconsciously between their own language and English, sometimes mid-sentence.
It makes watching Bollywood masala movies much easier for the Hindi-challenged like me. There will be a stream of Hindi and—in the middle—"Wow wow wow, I love you" to help me understand what’s going on. (Not that masala movies are particularly complicated, anyway; they’re pretty light on plot, relying instead on gorgeous scenery, costumes and lots of songs. Top Bollywood tip: a male with too much gold jewellry, a moustache or who smokes is invariably the baddie.)
Indian English can often seem either elaborately formal ("Excuse me good sir, may I impertinently enquire as to your occupation in your country of origin?" I was asked) or somewhat quaint, almost Enid Blyton-esque—I assume that many idioms are frozen in the late 1940s when the British left. So, when police arrested a gang who were stealing gas from cylinders they sold as full, it was reported in my morning paper that "sleuths nabbed neer-do-wells". A man who dressed in a burka in order to visit his girlfriend was "bashed up" when discovered.
There are also a few perculiarly Indian formations. The back of a building or rear of an aeroplane is usually referred to as "the backside" ("Is a backside seat acceptable, Mr Lawson?", to which the answer can anatomically only be "yes"). Near my hotel is a shop offering "gentlemens’ suitings and shirtings". The word "even" has been commandeered as a synonym for "also" as in "Even I need to go to the bank" for "I need to go to be bank, too". Even I’ve found myself saying this, it’s so common.
Not all Indian English is as charming: sexual harrassment is linguisticaly trivialised as "eve-teasing". Perhaps the local ladies might carry some scissors for retaliation, adding reciprocal insult-by-euphemism to the injury by calling it "sausage-snipping"?
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