Millennium Post

English vinglish hinglish globish

Even before it has been released here, English Vinglish [EV] is creating quite a stir in India. Sridevi, who makes a comeback with this film after 14 years of video-silence, is already being compared to Hollywood’s evergreen Meryl Streep, which is a rare compliment, given Streep’s undying popularity amongst the cinephiles and her regularly being nominated for the Academy awards. However, the film, directed by debutante Gauri Shinde, wife of noted director-producer R Balki of Paa fame, is not only about putting the superstar of the 1980s back into the centre stage, but also about the uses and lures of a ‘crossover culture’ – a fluid, transnational, global culture of an aspirational lifestyle that binds diverse people from all over the world with the glue of a formerly imperial language and its post-imperial marketability as the password to [albeit many-tiered] global citizenry.

Judging by the trailer, EV is probably a bilingual film – what is often called ‘Hinglish’ in popular Indian parlance. Sridevi essays the role of a Marathi housewife, Shashi, who struggles with her spoken English, and decides to learn the language in order to gain acceptability from her husband. Deducing from the video of the already-a-chartbuster song Manhattan from the film, Shashi travels to New York City, either to be with her relatives residing in the Big Apple  [whose innovative attempt at syllabification breaks down Manhattan into three components and then comically translates them into their Hindi counterparts], to attend a wedding, or to be preened into an English-speaking [I’m guessing it’s American English that she’s learning there] but sari-wearing Indian mother-swan.

So far, so Ugly Betty. However, in this case, the ‘ugliness’ is not of the physical appearance, which hardly changes during the length of the film [judging by the trailer of course] except for the addition of an expensive, possibly branded, overcoat that Shashi wears as she struts down the streets of New York. The ‘ugliness’ is more inward, a purported deficiency in education, an ostensible lack in sophistication, that comes with an English-medium schooling and the consequent fluency in speaking English. English Vinglish puts its fingers on the daily struggle faced by almost 80 per cent of the Indian people – our mothers, sometimes our fathers too, our relatives from distant towns, folks in rural areas with barely any façade resembling a school – and many others who get discriminated and tagged second or third class citizens because their command over this imported adhesive called English language is not good enough.

While the remains of the British Empire is now largely confined to this language – even the streets and towns with colonial names are seeing a radical indigenisation these days – whether it’s a boon or a bane still remains a bone of contention. Why should Koreans in Korea, Chinese in China, Mexicans in Mexico, Pakistanis in Pakistan learn English in order to be accepted in their own society? The fact of the matter is, to rephrase the arch English imperial apologist Cecil Rhodes, ‘To be born an English-speaker is to win one of the top prizes in life’s lottery.’ As a result, everyone is busily buying the tickets of this international lotto, a global casino where languages are tossed off in favour of a monstrously growing linguistic serpent that’s swallowing up others to feed itself.

Though, it would be quite inadequate if this global spread of English as the world language, or ‘Globish’ as it is sometimes called [after an eponymously titled book by Robert McCrum, erstwhile editor of Faber & Faber, and now the literary editor of The Observer and a columnist with The Guardian], is only seen in a negative light. As it is gradually emerging, there are numerous pleasures of entering the world stage of English, and seeing the language itself changing – creolising and caramelising like molten sugar and sucking in the flavours of other languages and dialects. Pidgin English, or the motley, hotchpotch, hickerydickery, jumbled up, incorrect, impure, miscegenated, crossbred consequences of mating English with its numerous linguistic spouses, is a language that has changed beyond recognition, leaving patterns and traces and a history of intermingling and/or apartheid. English, or Englishes, or Globish, has escaped from the stifling domain of hushed diplomatic maneuvers behind closed walls, chiming with the clinking of liquor glasses and political boardgames, to the multifariously entangled and enmeshed ecosphere of connecting with the fellow peoples from all over the world. Knowing English makes it easier to handle the interfaces of global interaction – the passport offices, the embassies, the airport check-in points, the takeaway counter, the movie theatre ticket shop, the retail stores, dealing with the local vendor of carpets or
at restaurants and hotels, entering a religious building, going to a museum, the university, presenting at seminars and conferences, tuning in to the global news, saying something to the world, blogging, writing, posting recipes, advertising for a clothing line, applying for a job, posting vacancies and so on. Though there still exist tiers of acumen and the elite echelons of Oxbridge/Harvard-Stanford-Yale English are guarded ferociously, these fortresses are developing chinks on the one hand, while on the other, concentric and porous circles of other universes, built around the everyday halting use of broken, unsophisticated English, are being created all the time.    

The uses of English are many and the increasing depoliticisation of the language from its colonial beginnings is being accepted by many as a welcome change.  English is now trading in pleasures of the people, the moods of the multitude. It’s mutating and fast. It’s changing colours. It’s becoming many, though not always, obliterating what’s on its path, but imbibing it, taking some from it, while giving it a lot back. The Hindi-speakers in India have their medium of communication generously sprinkled with the glitter of English words – we say telephone and not durbhash, we say office and not kacheri.
Similarly, Oxford English Dictionary now recognises bazaar, sari, ‘Bollywood’, purdah, pukka and 700 more such words – thanks to years of colonial interaction and endeavours of bold experimental novelists such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Upamanyu Chaterjee, Kiran Desai among others, who have beaten, kneaded, cooked and flavoured the dough of Queen’s English and transmuted it into something quite different. The currification, or desification, of English is in fact being heralded by the international litterateurs as a reinvention of the language; its rebirth, so to say, in a protean form suited to this expanding-contracting globe of unprecedented connectivity, unlimited intermingling and unbound horizons. [IPA]
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