In India, We Speak Like This Only

Another day another train.  The Dehradun Shatabdi this time and an a/c chair car for INR580.00 or £5.80 for a comfortable 5 hour journey. Not only is this journey comfortable, you are provided , within the price of your ticket, with a bottle of water, newspaper, tea, breakfast (veg or non-veg) and more tea. Not bad. The breakfast included a bottle of mango lassi and, as I was inspecting the label, I noticed another thing I had forgotten about India. Food expiry dates don’t exist. 

A1Now before you start guffawing and nodding and saying things like, “Yes well, a country like India, hardly surprising, Delhi Belly etc.” It’s not as if they don’t exist in their entirety, it is just that here they have a more Eastern approach to the safety of a food item.  The dates displayed on packaged products in India are the packaged on date, leaving you to determine how many days before they are no longer fit for consumption. Trusting your dharma or karma or whatever it is you want to call it.

Thinking, about ‘expiry’ dates, or more precisely, the word expire, got me thinking about the the use of words and language in India as opposed to the ‘Queens EngliNo Spittingsh’ we practise in the west, or the UK, or at least that some of us do, (my Father wouldn’t even include me in that sub group), some of the time.  You see, we use expiry dates for food, but in India, it is people who expire.  ‘He expired on 25th July,’ they say.  ‘Oh, I had to go out of station, my aunt expired,’ Visions of an elderly aunt, covered in green mould, sitting in a skip at the back of Tesco’s, cling film bulging perilously, spring to my mind.

I have recently been getting back into” India speech mode”.  All my friends here struggle with conversing with me when I first return from Yorkshire, having picked up my Yorkshire intonation once more.  So, over the first few days, I subconsciously start the transition back into my Indian English. This starts with speaking with more of an Indian lilt, hand gestures and head wobbles soon follow (yes, I can do the Indian head wobble) and then I start noticing ‘Indianisms’ cropping up in my speech. Having a Father who is a stickler for grammar, I often cringe when, a few days after my return, I notice myself using the way the Indians use English rather than the Queens English instilled in me from birth.  Seeing a friend wince I will ask if something is ‘paining’ them, on an email I will ask my team to ‘do the needful and revert.’

There are lovely quaint uses of English here, long since forgotten, one of my favourites being thrice; once, twice, thrice.  Inaugurated is another oft used word and a temple ‘atop a hillock’ is one of my friend’s favourite phrases which she found in The Times of India.

I have been trying to learn Hindi ‘for long’ and my friends encourage me by speaking around me, in a mixture of Hindi and English.  It is often listening to the way Indians use English that helps with learning how to speak their language.  My friends daughter ‘opens’ her hair, as in lets it down or unties it, which is great, as I now know how to say ‘to let my hair down’ in Hindi without translating from the English. You get the picture.

Then there are the invented words. In India one can “prepone” as well as “postpone” and one “deplanes” after landing at the airport. These are unique to Indian English but do make sense.

However, there are quirks to the language that can make it quite confusing. In many instances, one word will do for many things and therefore one really needs to understand the context of a word in a sentence, which can make it tricky for me trying to follow a conversation when I have relatively limited vocab and dreadful grammar.  For example, “bhijli” is the word for lightning, light and electricity – which all makes sense when you think about it. No need to invent a new word or borrow one from another language if you have one which will suffice for all. Wonderfully confusingly, the word for yesterday (cal) is the same as the word for tomorrow and the word for the day before yesterday (parson) is the same as the word for the day after tomorrow.

This doesn’t make my efforts at learning the language any easier as one really does need to know what tense people are talking in, though I can get the gist of most conversations, as long as we are not discussing nuclear physics or politics – though to be fair, I struggle with those even in English.

Then there are the misuses that can be amusing such as using the ‘backside entrance’. I leave the consequences of that misnomer to your imagination.

However, it is the tense issue that does get to me.  There is an insistence to use the conditional tense instead of the future perfect.  Tomorrow you would be collected from your hotel. Would? Why would? Is this conditional? No, it is not, you certainly will be collected.

Other examples which are used as the norm in conversations are phrases such as ‘Do you know driving?’ and ‘Do you know swimming?’ What, is swimming a person? Can I swim? ‘Yes,’ I cry, ‘I can!’  Do I know how to drive? ‘Yes!’ I exclaim, ‘Even on Indian roads!’ But do I know driving? No, I don’t.

Another one sided conversation I once overheard:

‘It’s your sister cousins birthday, have you called and wished her?’

‘’No?! What are you talking? A lot many things she does for you and you haven’t wished her? I don’t care if you are out of station, call and wish her immediately!’

Happy birthday isn’t added onto the end, ever. This is something else that happens here.  Quite often, when speaking to Indian friends, they seem to run out of words mid-sentence and will gesticulate and fill in with ‘eeer, this thing.’ ‘This thing’, it covers an awful lot of ground.  It’s a bit like the American, ‘You know.’ The other sentence ending, which I love and catch myself saying regularly, but which baffles many from the west is ‘only’. ‘Yes, it’s like that only,’ ‘Do it like this only,’ ‘I am traveling only,’ ‘He did it only.’ The word ‘only’ can, and does, come up at the end of many, many sentences with no apparent value to add.

I am now near my destination of Haridwar, or to coin another Indianism, ‘I have almost reached.’  I have spent some very pleasant ‘time pass’ writing this on the train.  I have been asked several times by various other curious and friendly passengers, ‘What is your good name’ and been told that they are heading to Haridwar as it is their ‘native place’.

India has English as its most common language and yet, they have adapted it to their own means and recreated it in a way that is charming, if at times a little alien to the western ear.  But then I am from Yorkshire, and wouldn’t expect Indians or any overseas visitors to understand the adaptations that  Yorkshiremen make to the English language. To give a few examples, who but a northerner would know that:  Cack-handed means left-handed or clumsy; chelpin’ means talking; chuffed means pleased or excited  and clarty means dirty, muddy, sticky?  We all add our own idiosyncrasies to a language; accent, phraseology and our home country determine in what way we do  this. I once had very dear Indian friends visit our home in Yorkshire and I literally had to translate between Yorkshire and Hinglish as my parents and my guests just looked incredibly bemused after each had attempted to initiate the conversation.

As I ‘detrain’ and fight my way along the platform, I receive one last instruction from one of my fellow passengers. I must ‘Do one thing’ whilst in Haridwar and that is go for a dip in the Ganges.   I nod politely and say “Thanks”, but I can’t help but wonder, if I do that, will I expire before I have had the chance to determine the expiry date on my mango lassi?


One Comment

  • TheLastWord

    July 27, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    Actually, I think “You do timepass”… 🙂 Interesting article. Easy to read and I can relate to much of it.

    As an Indian who has been living in Canada since long 🙂 and who also worked in the US for a few years I find myself struggling sometimes between the Indianisms, the Canuckisms and Americanisms. Spellings, for instance, are a challenge. And words such as “fortnight” are not used here. Graduated from is “passed out” in Hinglish…


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