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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sir and Madam, if you please

My wife was laughing the other day when our long-time insurance agent suddenly started addressing her as ‘Madam’. Both are Bengalis, mind you, and he had been calling us dada and boudi for years. Why the sudden shift to an alien style? Well, he shamefacedly admitted, a lot of women these days take offence if he uses ‘obsolete’ forms of address such as boudi

We have heard the same from others, too, greengrocers and sweetmeat sellers among them. One fishmonger was hugely relieved and pleased when my wife told him she much prefers to be called boudi, as of old. He even had an explanation for the new fashion: ‘They’ve picked it up at the shopping malls!’ And the wives of the yuppies are much more prickly, it seems, than their men-folk are.

I remember that when I sat in the St. Xavier’s library in the halcyon days, and parents of boys in class 9 and 10 with any kind of query relating to their wards were routinely sent up to me by the headmaster, many of them felt this compulsion to speak to me in English, under the impression that to talk to an English teacher in an English-medium school in anything other than English was simply not done. Invariably they would take in a deep breath, puff up their chests, throw their shoulders back, go goggle-eyed and let loose a torrent of pidgin, whether they were engineers or clerks. Only perhaps one in a hundred could really talk in English, but what passion they threw into their voices! I could hardly listen for a minute before I was struggling to smother a smile, and I had to tell them that I was as much a  Bengali as they, and I would much prefer to converse in the native language. They looked nonplussed for a moment, then switched over to Bengali with obvious relief. Not that they could speak good Bengali, either, but that is another story.

The same happens in the bank I go to. Those manning the counters insist on talking in English, even if I begin the conversation in Bengali, but the moment I am driven by exasperation to start talking in English, they register alarm and promptly switch back to Bengali or Hindi…

What a country we have made, indeed: the most cultured among us are ashamed of our native tongues and so proud of speaking in an alien language most of them have only the most tenuous grasp of!


Rajdeep said...

Hahaha! Good one! Well, there is another trend. When one cannot speak good English, then make claims about "Indian English" and that we must speak English our own way rather than trying to imitate foreigners!

Subhadip Dutta said...

Good one from Rajdeep.

Sir, as I said in my comment on the post "Are you sure" that most people in India just speak English to show off how well they know English or to let others know how much they sneer at, or can sneer at their mother tongues and the people of their motherland who prefer to speak in Indian languages. "Olpo bidda bhoyonkori" is a big problem with Indians. And the fun is, when they get caught in trying to prove themselves very smart, they suddenly revert back to being an Indian from an "Ingrej".

Here in the Delhi metro, I once had an altercation with a person regarding some pushing and shoving. The altercation started well in Hindi, and then the fellow decided to switch to English. Incidentally when I blurted out very fast in English, he retorted once or twice, and then he fell silent. Contrary to your experience in the bank where the person again returned back to his mother tongue, this person stopped speaking, which was all well for me.

I do not know why people find it very smart to speak in English. If I get some Bengali friend here in Delhi, I prefer to rather speak in Bengali than Hindi. By speaking in Bengali, I get an added advantage also. When I have to abuse someone in our discussion, I can do that publicly at the top my voice without any fear of getting harmed or being eyed by people. Sometimes, while speaking with my cousins on the phone I even describe certain people, whose characteristics I might not like, as, "amar paase ekta chhagol bose achhe", while sitting on the seat just next to them in a public bus or the metro. I think speaking in one's mother tongue might sometimes prove to be very advantageous.

Pritam Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,

I have some stories of my own to tell:

1. I recently met a distant relative of mine who has lived in the US for about twenty years now with his wife and two sons. We conversed in Bengali for some time until his sons and his wife came home and I learned that his sons, aged fifteen and seventeen, understood very little spoken Bengali, let alone speak or read in it. I was a bit surprised at first, until I realised that their parents (both of them Bengalis) actually took pride in the fact that their sons could speak English fluently but not Bengali!

2. A friend of mine who recently has been married to a doctor in Kolkata tells me that her in-laws and her husband, (who are all Bengalis),talk among each other in English even for day-to-day conversation. It seems the trend to bring up one's children without teaching them their mother-tongue is catching on in India too.

I cannot imagine what greater shame there is than being unable to even speak one's mother tongue. The parents whose children cannot even speak their native tongue should be even more ashamed. Unfortunately, that is not the case. I am reminded of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's essay 'Babu' in 'Lokarahashya', where he had made a scathing mockery of his contemporary 'Babu's who tried to ape their foreign masters. Unfortunately, it seems that the British have left but we have remained faithful apes.


Shilpi said...

This is an absolutely hilarious read. Grumpy Bengalis especially need to read this (as one rather grumpy Bengali did yesterday or was it the day before?).

I can see boudi half-smiling with the long-time insurance agent suddenly shooting out a 'madam' and I can see her telling the fishmonger that she much prefers being called boudi....and I'm thinking of the fishmonger making the observation...I knew something was coming with that liner of your 'halcyon days' while sitting in the quiet library. That whole bit is priceless. Can quite see the whole thing and you trying to smother a smile too before telling them to 'please stop...' That whole bit should go into a book.

Same goes for the encounters at the bank. Yes, they would register alarm with the sudden shift from the mild, gentle and barely-there breeze to the straight shooting, clipped and pukkah storm. They wouldn't know what hit them....

I'm chuckling while writing this comment. That's all. Don't have anything else to add just now.

P.S: Oh, and Subhadip please don't mind. I'd be the last person to try and correct anybody's language usage, but I'll mention just two things all the same: it's 'revert' not 'revert back' and 'return' not 'return back'.

Anand Tiwari said...

Dear Suvro da,

My only wish is that 'boudi' does not go out of vogue just like 'bouThaan' did.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

What a sweet and many-layered appellation that was, Anand, bouthaan. How little today's average Bengali knows what cultural treasures s/he has lost!

01 August, 2011 21:42

Subhadip Dutta said...

Thank you for pointing out my mistakes Shilpidi. There is nothing to mind. In fact, it will be helpful for me in the future.

People normally let these things go because they feel that such comments in a public forum might be taken as rude. However, you are always welcome to point out my mistakes in the future also. I think I will be greatly benefited.

Dipanwita Shome said...

This reminds me of my mother's great trepidation when I once took her to my college. You know, like you, I come from a college that is very anglicised and bears both a good name and a bad one for being so.
Once just before my exams, I had to go to College to get my admission card, and I insisted that Maa should come along. She was petrified! Apparently, not being able to converse in English was going to make it an ordeal for her. You know, I quite saw her point. The fear that can paralyse a person in a world you have so aptly described and especially for a person who WILL NOT resort to a desperate breed of English just to escape embarrassment and inability can indeed be a daunting one. I told her that since the college was in India and since the founders and present administrators of the institution thought it beneficial for themselves to run the college in India, it was their duty to be conversant and tolerant of the vernaculars. That since we are are not exactly in Nottingham, we need not bother. I quite impressed upon her that the onus in this case was on the other party, not on her. Since then she has walked into the same institution and into the university multiple times with quite an effortless smile on her face. I have even heard her explain the same point to my father once just after I had requested him to come to College for dinner with me. The incident still makes me very happy because my friends came, and once I had told them that my parents are unilingual (in Bangla), they spoke and joked with them to glory in Hindi for the entire evening. Maa and Baba have been able to come away with genuinely good memories to, which is the most important thing.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Quite right, Dipanwita. What makes me see red is that a lot of very cultured and nice people are made to suffer from a deep sense of inferiority by a lot of snooty idiots simply because they can speak faulty English (and probably equally faulty vernacular) a little better than they, and have no other claim to being educated.

But some people have such supreme self-confidence that they don't give a damn. I am reminded of a paan-chewing grandmother of mine who got lost wandering about a small American town, and sat down placidly at the traffic policeman's kiosk, told him in Bengali to find her son for her, and waited with perfect poise for a couple of hours until the poor flustered boy had raised half the police department and found another Bengali, who helped to contact the son, and he came and took her home... this was, of course, long before mobile phones came into use.

Dipanwita Shome said...

Exactly! You know, my grandmother is also an informally educated paan chewing widow in my memory. The idioms she used, the proverbs she said were so beautiful, and in today's time, so lost to us. Her mode of address to my mother was "Bouma", and she taught the young girl that my mother was even during the time of her marriage, many an adage that have come to us intact. They are not mere strings of words, they are so apt in the choice of words and tone that they function as little reminders of conduct and wise ways of living life and treating others and also remembrances of times past, of language lost.