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Op-Ed

A Journey Together

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By EMN Updated: Aug 24, 2013 1:06 am
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P. Ganguly

Late TN Chatterji (HoD English) of Presidency College (University from 1.1.14), Calcutta once told Hons. students about a British Prof. of English literature at Oxford. He went there for a PG course. He asked them to write an essay giving a topic but no instruction. The rustic wrote his best to impress. The scholar penned through it and awarded zero. He told that a simple language lost its fluency if bombastic and ornamental words were used. British Bengal wrote good English and had working knowledge of spoken one. After partition South came to the fore. Left leaders preferred Hindi with Bengali. In the NE one finds Mizo English is some what flowery like their dialect. I maintain a safe distance from difficult words. Bengali Ghana Da (pseudonym of a famous writer) wrote “Mephistophilis Yak Yak” non-English for international touch. My father was BA English from Calcutta and mother a product of a famous Convent under a white Mother Superior early last century. Her grandpa being the first native Graduate Engineer was CE to Viceroy at Calcutta and Delhi. He used to get a Rail salon for Darjeeling and Shimla during summer. We heard those stories like lullabies. Thus from childhood we were familiar with the language.
Our teacher was carried to school lawn with a broken jaw and collar bone. He was an ex- alumni of Shantiniketan. In the adjacent park a swadeshi meeting was on and he too shouted Vande Mataram (obeisance to Mother). British Mounted Police charged him with a horse. The handsome young man died in the hospital. The school was patterned to impart Western education. It changed on National mode early 1940s. Our best English teacher was lame so walked with a stick – his nickname given by us was Mr. Tungay from David Copperfield. It of course was known to him so a reference landed one in trouble. Caning up to the knees, kneel down, confinement beyond class hours, donkey cap and so on were allowed but “mild lathi charge”(police) not. Our headmaster wrote English grammar books. He was a widower and fond of whisky so we kept a tab on him. His partner was a chronic bachelor and freedom fighter too. Altogether we had so many ways to connect with English.
Poet Michael MS Dutt before becoming a Catholic claimed that “young Bengal not only dressed but spoke, wrote and even dreamt in English”.
In GB as a barrister and with wife Rebecca he was advised there to use mother tongue instead of English. Later in life the rebel did it on return to India. His genius can be placed next to Tagore but he preceded Bengal Renaissance. He wrote his own epitaph “Stop, traveller. If you’re born in Bengal wait a while. Here lies poet Sri Madhu Sudan, father Raj Narain, mother Jahnabi Debi, born at village Kapotaksha” (pigeon eye) etc. His father was a rich Zemindar of Jessore (BD) who sent armed people to bring back his errant son from Padre but he took refuge at Fort William and then sailed for GB.
Michael’s Bengali is superior. (Bengali does not have the alphabet V.B is used instead). The firebrand Swami Vivekanand was a BA from Calcutta. One afternoon some drunken White soldiers got on a boat ferrying people across the Ganges. They misbehaved with the women. He and friend Gour resisted.
He asked them in chaste English if back home they would do so. The unruly Gora (white) was so surprised that they asked for forgiveness. The wandering mendicant was popular at Madras where the language is popular. On his rustic Guru’s order for going to Chicago All World Religions Meet (1893) even if uninvited as colonial projection of Hindoo was “snake charm and rope trick” one Perumal Swamy of Madras raised money to meet his deck fare. At the meet, he was finally allowed hardly 5 minutes between two speakers. He began “My brothers and sisters of America, I come to speak of a religion compared with which Christianity is a distant echo and Islam a newborn child”. The crowd was stunned. No one noticed when the Church bell rang midnight.
For 3 days he alone was heard. Europe too was swept off its feet – “My Master as I saw Him” (Margaret or Sister Nivedita). The Nobel Award Committee at Oslo decided to go through Tagore’s poems. English (as necessary) version of Gitanjali (Song offerings) was prepared by Tagore and friend CF Andrews. No questions asked, he became a Nobel Laureate (first Asian) in 1913. The translated literature was enough. He refused Knighthood citing Jallianwala (1916) massacre. During India’s freedom struggle many native English orators came to the fore. Nehru lost fluency after Chinese betrayal (1962).
However my personal standard was low. I had a few Anglo-Indian acquaintances speaking un-accented language. Carey’s Bengali was obsolete. AI girls, mostly Phone Operator, receptionist, governess etc in mini skirts and coloured umbrellas were easy to understand like their Rail Guard, deckmate, signaller etc. brothers. They discussed cads (cadavers) turning into beauties or sang songs on predicament of rejected lovers. “Lift Out of Order” made them research on how much Leg of office girls was visible from below the staircase. They always ran short of money somewhat like Naga who do not save. Liquor was welcome. But they took interest in church (Catholic) discipline beside hunting for Beef (cheap) with tongue and tail. They lived in their world where English was lingua franca. In the last phase of WWII the city was flooded with American soldiers. AI acquaintances told that to pick up their nasal accent, one need pick up Syphillis (STD). It
spread like an epidemic in the continent then via US soldiers it reached India. In the past British treated Americans as their village cousins and British girls avoided them like their subjects. In British India many natives returned from GB with white maidservants as wives.
I may admit that when I first visited Nagaland, I found particularly Angami girls were proud and avoid some (about outsiders). A Jakhama Major propagated unpredictability of Kohima girls like local weather.
Our college principal was a Sylhet MA (English). The English Professor was ex- Oxford or Cambridge. His little daughter wanted to go to GB on a rickshaw but she was determined to marry once back home as she never would marry a red faced monkey! We submitted our proposals to her in advance. Under Exchange program, California University team came to our collage and sought characters from us to stage Shakespeare like Merchant of Venice, Othello, Julius Caesar and so on but all got cold feet. The Americans had their Othello, Mark Antony, Brutus, Portia, Shylock, Desdemona and all. Due to shortage a few played two characters. Even one native brave heart did not shoulder the risk. The author suffered time constraint during student life.
In good old days at Kohima, I found many talked in English related to Holy Bible. They were all would be theologians. In fact schools were less and after unsuccessful trials many went for theology. Theology contributed so much for Naga education. Then an MLA enquired from the Education Minister in NLA as to why students speak English in a southern accent. He was told because their teachers came from Kerala. Now Naga often connects with the West.
India offers a variety show. Post Independence it is south and tradition that kept English alive. Biren, son of Sir RN Mukehrjee (founder IISCO, Kulti, WB and partner Martin Burn Light Railways) as a student at London wrote letters home in English(not Bengali). On request from the aggrieved father, Tagore wrote to him “You won’t be able to master a foreign language and would forget your mother tongue. How’d you express yourself?” The boy corrected himself. I may be excused if I may add that Lady Ranu wife of Biren was beautiful, an art connosieur and had deer like eyes. A hunter will not look at deer’s eyes else a miss is possible. We belonged to aristocracy though without money because of an invalid father. In Bengali households we never mixed English with Bengali. Bengali provided all the words.
Hinglish rose at the horizon. “Please pass the saas (sauce turned mother in law)”is standard. PM Chandra Sekhar stunned UN speaking in Bhojpuri English –so powerful. Simultaneously a race began on accentsthroughout the country. BHU VC pleaded ignorance of Hindi and his students were ready to “teach” him. Bollywood made fun of Bengali-Madrassi who was projected as less “National”. In a New Delhi joke “Vartak (duck) became buttock in English (that too female)”.
Altogether sad. I underwent a Hindi Rapid Course with my Sanskrit background under Tamil teachers and picked up the rest from Punjabi (including adjectives).
Mcaulay introduced compulsory English education (1861). Mohammedans boycotted it. There were 3 universities then. It began a journey with breeches, jackets and riding boots on Australian horseback, we followed in dhoti (and nothing else: tropical climate). Later a shirt was inserted in dhoti, a necktie adorned the collar, a coat covered the upper part and a pair of pump shoes the feet. Yet we never gave up. Today Indian writers in English are celebrities. Hindi is not yet fully grown up. Till then let us chase what we had been doing so long.
The same year 1861 gave us Paanch Dhara or Rs.5 fine for urinating in a public thoroughfare or Police Regulations of Bengal (PRB). Look and find out if anyone is pissing around. The language is an institution in itself- a positive among absolute negativity of 2 centuries.
Calcutta University more than a decade back issued an order (New Delhi directive) to accept any Indian state language in lieu of Alternative English in under graduate (not underground) course unaware that the Warriors retained it. GK in the plains about Naga is poor.
Today comparatively uneducated locals under Constitutional protection are threatened by immediate, literate yet needy Mongolian
neighbourhood having an eye on the vul erable Oasis in Naga Utopia.
Some are explicitly more anti-India for currying favour with the Utopians in their own perception. Art 371 is the Chastity Belt for crusaders against New Delhi laws but never a panacea for everything that is imported from SE Asia – some may prove in the long run avoidable sentimental and indiscretion. Every yellow entity may not be an indigenous Naga and one needing plastic surgery not an enemy.
Socio-economic study reveals that Indo-Naga coexistence or status quo obtaining under the circumstances brought Naga prosperity and helped Nagalim and beyond. A sensible boatman does not ignore a leak in the boat. One may be practical. Historian Akshay Sarkar wrote “Mir Zafar himself dug a canal to welcome the crocodile home”- it was in the Plassey context. The C-in-C took a burqa clad Clive for a temporary trader from across the seven seas. The blunder made us slaves – a gain is the English language. The journey together should continue.

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By EMN Updated: Aug 24, 2013 1:06:44 am