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Mallika Nawal
The Image Rises, The Word Falls

Language has infinite power and as long as there’s Romeo and Juliet or Laila and Majnu or You and Me, as long as there’s love in the world, language will find a way to cast its spell. And, curse you, Chetan Bhagat!

BOW-WOW…POOH-POOH…DING-DONG…YO-HE-HO…LA-LA…

Before you start wondering if I have gone “bonkers”, let me set the record straight: NO, I have NOT lost my mind (at least, not enough to land in an asylum – not yet). Nor am I imitating the two-year-old toddler that lives in my neighborhood (although sometimes, I do scream like him).

So, what’s this gibberish, you ask me…patience, my dear Baratim, patience.

There is always a method to my madness, which usually happens when someone makes me really mad. And this time, the man who managed to press my buttons (and not in a ‘good’ way) was none other than the beloved “mass” author, Chetan Bhagat with his Half Girlfriend, in which a girl who speaks impeccable English agrees to be only “half girlfriend” to a boy from rural India who struggles with the language.

I truly don’t know who’s more offended – the girl in me, the feminist in me, the linguist in me or the Bihari in me!

Of course, this is not another review of the book, which, to be completely honest, I haven’t read – for the concept itself managed to put off all my multiple personalities – at the same time.

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However, before I delve into my twisted reasons for writing this article (and I solemnly swear to explain the balderdash at the beginning of this article), let me quote another IITian – this time an eminent IIT professor, The-One-Who-Shall-Not-Be-NAMED (Note: This is for my self-preservation since he’s a close personal friend).  During a session, he categorically informed his students, “You can NEVER speak proper English. It’s not your mother-tongue.” And I simply sat there, staring at him – a silent spectator silently swearing, “OH, BITE YOUR TONGUE!” (N.B. There was absolutely no empirical basis for his assertion, mind you!)

I know some of you are still wondering what those funny-sounding words are and I promise to get to them in a moment – but for now, bear with me – just a little longer, at least for one last (and personal) anecdote.

I once dialed the number of this incredible hunk-of-a-CEO and managed to ask “for” him, in flawless Hindi (in my defence, I had not expected him to pick up the phone). The sound of incredible horror greeted me when he asked me – mortified: “Mallika, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you alright?” (The horror somehow overpowered the happiness that I should have otherwise felt, knowing that he knew my voice). Since then, whenever I want to toy with him, I just head into the Hindi arsenal and bring out the big guns. And although, he has managed to dial down his horror, he’s yet to pack some heat…which finally brings me to my reason for writing this article and I can finally explain the mumbo-jumbo.

Well, here goes nothing…

Bow-wow, pooh-pooh, ding-dong, yo-he-ho, la-la are simply derision-dripping ‘cute’ names that the great Oxford Linguist, Max Mueller, used to denote the theories of the origin of language. That’s right – language, like humans, have their own evolution. They too follow the principles of natural selection and they too have seen the practice of artificial selection (a.k.a. selective breeding – please note, the proper term for such hybrid languages is ‘macaronic language’; for example: Hinglish, Britalian, Chinglish, etc).

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And language, like us mere mortals, has also known life and death.

Speaking of death, let’s head back to the hilariously horrendous bout of Hindi horror. To be completely honest, this Greek-God-personified CEO’s consternation at Hindi knocked the wind out of me (and stirred up the hornet’s nest nestled inside my head).

Since then, we’ve both been at it – guns drawn, words loaded!

Although, I haven’t stopped pondering the implication of his questions: “Is there something wrong with me if I choose to speak impeccable Hindi? If speaking good English was a hallmark of good breeding, when did speaking good Hindi degenerate into a debilitating sickness?” The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

It would be wrong to say I didn’t see it coming. I knew this war was imminent – signs of it were strewn about the World Wide Web and the telecom network. Every day I receive intelligence from my assets who sent me cryptic messages – messages without vowels. Even now my head reels at this bizarre boycott. And while I call them Slow Sluggish Sloths, they call me the Vestal Virgin for Vowels. (Alliterations are so much better than altercations, are they not?)

The world that we live in is truly strange. There were three children, who lived in perfect harmony. But now, English is the only legitimate child. Hindi was abandoned in the dumpster long ago and Hinglish now bears the curse of illegitimacy. The war bugle has sounded!

I know what you’re thinking – CB and the countless others have been cursing the English purebreds. It’s an exclusive club, after all, with special membership privileges. Are they wrong? Alas, no! English does open doors for you that would otherwise have remained closed. And the truth is that even those who openly condemn it; secretly covet it.

But in the arena of impression management, through the battle-cries of image consultants, language has lost its lustre. Image IS everything and the joy of simply learning a language has succumbed to its battle wounds.

Thankfully though, I was born in a family that had a reverence for the rhetoric. And in the limited time I have spent on planet Earth (of course, that’s my way of reminding you that I’m pretty young), I have lived and loved it all! I have experienced the covetous pleasure of English, the bewildering intimidation of Hindi, the sweet caress of Bengali, the rough embrace of Bhojpuri, the musical notes of Maithili, the flamboyant style of Punjabi, the diabolical similarity of Marwari and Gujarati, the longing desire of Urdu, the uber-simplicity of Oriya, the swift breath of Tamil, and the tantalizing intricacies of French.

Unfortunately, in a world where shortcuts and ‘jugaads’ abound, corruption has permeated language as well – whether it’s the advent of Hinglish; or the use of ‘kinda’, ‘wanna’, ‘gonna’; or the mindless boycott of vowels. But before you condemn this corruption, remember – evolution will weed out the weakling.

But the corruption itself does not enrage me, it’s the label. If speaking good Hindi makes me ‘SICK’; good English makes me a ‘SNOB’! Either way, it seems, I’m going to be stuck with some label. Of course, I don’t care what label I have to live with, I will not give up on my romance with language, and neither should you!

But was it always like this?

The answer is No! Rousseau in his posthumously published essay contended that language developed in southern warm climates and then migrated northwards to colder temperatures. (And as the temperatures dropped, language too took quite a fall}. So, while at its inception, it was musical and had raw emotional power, the colder climates of the north stripped language bare, distorting it to the present rational form.

The comparison of language to music is a befitting one. Can you honestly single out a single note in music and claim it’s more important than the rest? Can you choose a single colour and remove the palette? (Don’t bother answering – it’s just a rhetorical question!)

To quote Otto Jespersen (1922), the Danish linguist:

“The genesis of language is not to be sought in the prosaic, but in the poetic side of life; the source of speech is not gloomy seriousness, but merry play and youthful hilarity…In primitive speech I hear the laughing cries of exultation when lads and lassies vied with one another to attract the attention of the other sex, when everybody sang his merriest and danced his bravest to lure a pair of eyes to throw admiring glances in his direction. Language was born in the courting days of mankind” (433-434)

After all, who amongst us has not felt both its warming glow and its cold icy sting…its companionship and its abandonment…how it makes us soar to the greatest heights of paradise or how it flings us into the deepest darkest recesses of hell. Truth is, language has infinite power and as long as there’s Adam and Eve (or Romeo and Juliet or Laila and Majnu or Martian and Venusian or You and Me), as long as there’s love in the world, language will find a way to cast its spell…just as it did, a long time ago, on a little girl who lived in Bihar.