Sunday, September 24, 2006

Book Review: Indlish

Things that can do a world of good to you usually come cheap. Such as a kilogram of carrots: barely Rs 20. A litre of milk: hardly Rs 15. A refreshing jog: Rs 0. The Economist Style Guide: Rs 295. If you have reasonable command over the English language, then a thorough - and sincere - reading of the guide could make you bypass the expensive journalism schools and transform you into a conscientious reporter/sub-editor. It is a different matter that you might need a degree from one of these schools to get a job in the first place.

Coming back to the Economist style guide. The other day, I was browsing through its latest edition after its publisher in India, Viva Books, kindly sent me a copy. For no apparent reason, my eyes settled on an entry under 'E':

underprivileged Since a privilege is a special favour or advantage, it is by definition not something to which everyone is entitled. So 'underprivileged', by implying the right to privileges for all, is not just ugly jargon but also nonsense.

I panicked: have I ever used the word in my copy? I could not recall immediately. But I recalled having seen the word in print - several times. But then, we make such mistakes either out of ignorance or carelessness. We are, after all, not The Economist, where every word is put under the microscope.

We are the Chalta Hai (anything will do) brand of journalists, feeding entirely on compost that usually consists of ignorance, laziness and leftovers from translations of vernacular languages. Such compost is called Indlish. For example, it is perfectly okay to say in Hindi, "Yeh kitna sundar hai, na?" - This is so beautiful, isn't it? The "na" is for "isn't it". But "na", in English, primarily means "no", so you have people saying, even writing, "This is so beautiful, no?"

But there are, fortunately or unfortunately, sentinels like Jyoti Sanyal who don't want English writing in India to be overrun by 'Indlish'. Fortunately, because if these people have their way, then the standard of writing in English papers would match that of the Economist. Unfortunately, these people don't seem to have their way - for evidence you have to look at the pages of any Indian newspaper.

I will settle for the path in between fortunately and unfortunately, and that is the path of hope - that things will improve someday. Improvement, once again, comes cheap: Rs 295. You'll have to cough up only that much to buy Sanyal's Indlish (Viva Books), which caps his 30-year-old career with the once-revered Statesman, perhaps the only paper to have a comprehensive in-house style guide authored, needless to say, by Sanyal. As the dean of the Asian College of Journalism, he also moulded the younger crop of journalists who are today scattered across the country, hopefully carrying his passion for plain English.

Indlish is replete with the stupidities you come across in the papers every day, morning after morning. Such as the overdose of "he categorically stated", "he noted", "he added" and "he further added" you find in the reported speech of a minister. Sanyal presents one classic case of syntax error - which Indian journalists are highly prone to: Mr Revanasiddaiah said Mr Manjunath had expressed his willingness to contribute the amount in a letter written to him.

Another gem: Mr Chautala's statement that both parties would have a separate poll manifesto for the Assembly elections scheduled for March, too has irked the BJP leaders. How can both parties have a separate manifesto? And that's just one of the howlers in that sentence.

The problem is, such howlers are most often made by senior journalists, who are likely to have halted their learning the moment they got their first jobs. Their juniors follow suit. Sanyal's book should serve as the Bible to journalists who want to write clean, sparkling copies. But I would recommend it more to senior journalists, editorial writers included, who think they know it all.

Mysore Musings

With India fast becoming one standardised city — a Shoppers’ Stop here and a Landmark there, with a few Baristas and Cafe Coffee Days thrown in — it is difficult to tell one city from the other. The only reminder that you are in a new town is the language spoken by people around you. But this distinguishing feature is also blurring out fast: your ears rarely catch a Telugu word in downtown Hyderabad, and Bangalore, but for its pleasant weather, could be mistaken for Delhi. So if you take the morning flight from Chennai to Hyderabad (or Bangalore) and return the same evening, you will feel you have not gone anywhere at all.

That is why my trip to Mysore was refreshing: Kannada was being spoken all around, and I finally felt I was in a new land. I even picked up a word, beda (don’t want), which came handy when a lottery seller near the bus station tried very hard to sell me a ticket, forecasting that I would be richer by Rs 20 lakh. After shaking him off with half-a-dozen bedas, I walked back to my hotel wondering what I would do if I were to get Rs 20 lakh. The answer, in the soothing evening breeze, came easily: buy a modest flat in Mysore. Mysore is one place whose name you get familiar with from your childhood, even without knowing its location on the map, thanks to Mysore Sandal Soap, Mysore silk, Mysore agarbattis, Mysore pak...

Present-day youngsters, however, are likely to have heard of another expression prefixed with the name of the city: Mysore Mallige. No, it’s not the collection of poems by the romantic poet K S Narasimhaswamy, or the 1991 film made by T S Nagabharana, but an amateur (and hardcore) porn video shot by a young Kannadiga who is shown spending time with his girlfriend in a hotel/lodge. The two (at the time the video was made) were supposed to be students from Mandya, though there are a million theories about their identities, and also about their fate once the video found its way into the porn market. Some say they committed suicide, some say they were killed, some say they are married and settled in the US. If you Google up ‘Mysore Mallige’, the maximum number of search results would be related to this video and only a few to the famous poet or director. Sex sells, after all — a point that was driven hard into me during my return journey to Chennai.

From a news vendor at the Mysore railway station, I bought R K Narayan’s Talkative Man (as a souvenir) and a copy of my paper, New Sunday Express. No sooner had the train started, the man across the aisle asked for the book; a few minutes later, the man next to me borrowed the newspaper. I was observing the man on the next seat as he fished out the Magazine section — the one you are holding now. He first looked at the cover page; it took less than 10 seconds for his eyes to travel from top to bottom. He did not even bother to look at the ‘Opinion’ page. ‘Books’, ‘Insight’ and 'Focus’ pages were spared two seconds each. Finally, he settled on ‘Meanwhile’, the page that is facing you now.

I looked at him with increased interest: is he going to read my column? If yes, what is his facial expression going to be? From the corner of my eye, I saw his eyes move in a circle around the page till they settled on ‘Ask Simi’, the sex (well, mostly) column at the bottom left. He spent nearly ten minutes on the column, lingering over every question and answer. Next, his eyes went up, on the snippets about celebrities. I waited for him to come to my column. Suddenly, he shut the paper and moved on to another section. He hadn’t even seen my column, leave alone read it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

French Leave

I had been away for only 24 hours, but when I returned to Chennai after scouring every corner of the maze of quiet streets called Pondicherry, I felt I was returning after 24 days. I also felt as if I had left a fusion music concert mid-way and pushed open the door of a disco to find a top-of-the-pops blasting on my ribcage.

Fusion: I can’t think of any other word to describe Pondicherry. The topography is Tamil, but the air is decidedly French. That is because the architecture is French, even though the buildings are Indian. The inhabitants (as well as the tourists) are also a mix of both — Indian and French. So are the menus of its restaurants. Wine (which is impossible to find in Tamil Nadu) flows as freely as beer. Aurobindo mixes with Annadurai, with a generous dash of Dupleix. And the music... actually there is no music in Pondicherry, only silence, which is repreatedly broken by the waves in case you are living by the sea.

I stayed by the sea, in a hotel whose design was French but name Indian: Ajantha. Or was it L’Ajantha? I seriously can’t recall, but the view from its spacious balcony was excellent, and so was the food. In the name of ‘Press’ I extracted a 10 percent discount, and the money saved was spent on buying various ’Auro’ brands of incense sticks.


The VHP guys have clearly not been to Satsanga, and I sincerely hope they don’t ever, because that’s one of the few places in Pondicherry which provides you excellent Continental fare for prices you are unlikely to find anywhere else in the world. The restaurant, on Lal Bahadur Shastri Road, is spread out in the courtyard of an old French-style bungalow, and run by a Frenchman: a quiet, laidback place where you can indulge in food and drinks at your own pace. Lunch for two is likely to cost you around Rs 500, with a couple of beers thrown in. Be careful about not trampling upon the tail of a pet puppy that can sprawl out at your feet and go off to sleep without you even noticing it.

About why the VHP should not discover this place. First of all, it is going to object to the name Satsanga, because the word usually conjures up images of a bunch of people singing a bhajan or attending a discourse. How can you eat meat and drink wine in a place with such a name? And the owner, in a bid to give his place the ethnic Indian touch, seems to have gone a bit overboard. The lovely saris that hang as the background curtain are fine, but idols of Ganesha sitting alongside beer mugs and clay ashtrays on the tables? Some might find it hip, but the sight can remind even the most liberal of Hindus that clay, when given the shape of a God, deserves a better place than the dining table. Or maybe these Ganeshas are French and not Indian.