Poet, historian and bureaucrat, Lord Thomas Macaulay served in India from 1834 to 1838 and within these four short years succeeded in changing forever the cultural landscape of the sub-continent. His proposal to induct English instead of Arabic or Sanskrit as the medium of instruction in schools was laid out in the (in)famous 'Minute on Indian Education' “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
Macaulay got his wish and for several decades the Queen's English, with its clipped Oxford (or was it Cambridge) diction, ruled benevolently over the subcontinent. People gloried in their grasp of grammar and sense of syntax; enunciation was a source of pride, spelling a matter of honour. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, the sovereign became the subject while the natives were busy turning themselves English, which itself was turning native.
Just as we had thrown off the shackles of British rule, we now thumbed our nose at the rules of their language. We celebrated the freedom to open the fan and close the light; to look for timepass instead of ways to pass the time, to wear half-pants instead of shorts and jeans ki pant instead of denim jeans.
A girl could be either mod-scod — in which case you blamed her brought-up — or simple and innocent (innocence apparently being a prized attribute for a female). In either case, if she was unlucky enough to have a wheatish complexion she had no hopes of landing a foreign-return and would have to settle for a cousin-brother who might think she is tight!
It wasn't just a case of 'bad' or Pidgin English — rather, it was an evolution; a sort of Pakistanisation of the language that was more in tune with our mood, culture and fondness for shorthand and abbreviations. People handed in their resign instead of resignation, cheques carried their sign instead of signature and, instead of an envelope, all of these were enclosed in a cover. And things were just as bad (or worse) that side of the border.
While we were still trying our best to keep English out of Urdu and vice versa, Indians were gleefully mixing it all up in a bag labelled Hinglish — a variant of the language that, thanks to Bollywood and the large immigrant population, has gained currency in UK itself. In fact the word Hinglish, along with several of its gems such as bindaas, got the official stamp of approval when it was included in that definitive bible of British English, the Oxford English Dictionary. No wonder then, that Indians were happy to celebrate their unique take on the language, but what about us?
For the longest time we refused to acknowledge any such thing as Paklish (or, God forbid, Pinglish); it was all just bad English. We were the people who refused to chopperise onions or ask people their good name; the people who drew a line between 'us' and 'them' based on the English one spoke. But one day at the supermarket, when I heard myself asking for an extra 'shopper', I realised that the line was getting more and more blurred each day; and given the historical context, this wasn't entirely unexpected.
After all the notion of 'pure' English is rather ludicrous when you consider that it has absorbed words from over five-hundred other languages. As James Nicoll, editor and blogger, puts it, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” And we all know exactly which pocket many of those words — bungalow, pyjamas, shampoo, jungle — came from. So today, if an Indian chauffer claims drivery as his profession, or a Pakistani student studies English Normal in class, one can consider it the repayment of a loan, long overdue.
In an article in the Christian Science Monitor, Sushobhan Mukherjee, strategic planning director for Publicis India, sums it up as, “My grandfather's generation grew up thinking, 'If I can't speak English correctly, I won't speak it; now, power has shifted to the young, and they want to be understood rather than be correct.”
At the end of the day, that's what language is all about understanding and being understood — everything else is mere semantics. So while I still insist on sticking to 'my English' I'm willing to concede that it doesn't have to be the same as yours. Take that Thomas Macaulay.