27 March 2008

Entry From Backside Only; hazaar fundas of Indian English

We are like this only!

Author: Binoo K John
Publishers: Penguin
Published in : 2007
Price: 95

There are perhaps several things to disagree with author and senior India Today journalist Binoo K John’s latest book, Entry From Backside Only – a succinct, self-assured book on the ‘hazaar fundas’ of Indian Enligh. For one, there are more presumptions than facts and also a tendency to hastily pin down factors and trends to sensationalist generalisations.

But the one thing you can happily agree is that there's never one dull or dispassionate moment here. Binoo's cheeky, charming take on Indian English is refreshing for the simple reason that he turns around an essentially academic theme and makes it entertaining for the average reader.
What is also appealing (some of course might call it verbal showmanship) is his deep love for the Queen’s language that enables him to articulate with a great panache and flair. Moreover, his generous sprinkling of savoury wit and irreverence makes this petite book a crisp read from the word go.

Sample these lines from the book’s jacket: “Backsides have a frontal position in Indian-English. In cluttered, crowded alleys there can be seen the notice “Entry from the backside”, a usage not exactly meant as a come-hither line to gays.’ From the early days of the Raj, the Indian version of English has been on a growth trajectory that has led to the evolution of what is, for all practical purposes, a language of its own. A hybrid form of English stalks the land, flaunting its illegitimacy, brashness and popularity. The rise of Indian-English runs parallel to tectonic changes in social aspirations. English, says the author, is the Porsche on the porch of the arriviste. There can be no social advancement without the glittering sword of English in your hands. This compendium is thus a journey through a sub-genre that has evolved against all odds....”

Binoo's book talks about how Indians overturn grammar and create phrases of their own --- mostly influenced from their mother-tongue.
But he largely concentrates on the fascination that Indians have for English and how the mongrel form of the language evolved so rapidly. Here there are several suppositions. For one, Binoo feels the educated class were largely influenced by national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote in English. Naturally, many aspired to be part of the national discourse and took to the language in the hope that what they wrote would reach a wider audience.
Another aspect the author looks at is how knowledge of English is considered as a 'social marker' in India; a determinant of one's economic status. He's right in that no other South Eastern countries or even European nations have taken to the Engligh as much as Indians.

Really, our deep fascination for the Queen's tongue---with its ingrained elitisim ----transcends considerations of the country's colonial past. Obviously, English wouldn't have come to us without the Britishers but it stayed here and thrived only because Indians found English and everything it stands for, quite irresistable.

There are chapters here that are entirely devoted to letters that citizens wrote in the post-independence period -- in mostly bombastic language that tried to imitate the British. Once the point is established, it seems tedious to go through all these similar sounding letters.
The last two couple of chapters are especially a drag, as it's clear that the author has clearly run out of mattter. There are pages and pages devoted to Arundhati Roy's The God Of Small Things, a book which impressed Binoo greatly. Then there's this totally inane chapter on Bollywood and its usage of English words that doesn't make any point whatsoever.

What keeps this going is Binoo's interesting style of writing, even if you know that some of his beliefs are misplaced.
My biggest beef with this book is that the author for most time can't decide if it wishes to deride users of Indian English or affectionately patronise them. Which is why, you are confused as to what he really expects and what he is pitting Indian English against?
Yet, for all its weaknesses, this is a refreshing addition to the non-fiction shelf which takes a serious topic and gives it a funny twist. The book is already a best seller (it's agressive pricing at 95 rupees helps of course) and it's nice to see something written on the English language, which undeniably is the most precious jewel we stole from the British.

13 March 2008

The Japanese Wife

Author: Kunal Basu
Price: 395
Publisher: Harper Collins


From the moment Aparna Sen announced that she would be making a literary adaptation of Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife, one saw an immense curiosity for the book. Not unexpectedly, copies of it were instantly lapped up at literary fests and now when it has finally hit book stores, business remains brisk as ever.
Now, firstly, this is a disappointment for people expecting to read a full-fledged novel on The Japanese Wife because it's a book of 13 short stories. The theme that runs here is that of unexpected, inscrutable love and situations brought on by quirks of destiny. This is of course an interesting premise to base ones stories upon, only that most of them are so isolated, so out-of-the-ordinary and so never-landish in describtion and characters that none of them emotionally engage you. Most of them have strange titles and names –The Pearlfisher, The Last Dalang, Lenin’s CafĂ©, Long Live Imelda Marcos and stranger stories, situated in different continents - there's a certain Babel like quality here but just that none of the stories seem wholesome enough.

Some of them start off showing some promise but turn unclear, unexciting and plain tedious after a couple of pages. Given that most stories here are themselves so bizarre, it’s no surprise that the attempted ironic twists fall flat on more than one occasion.

The only story to recommend here is the title one –The Japanese Wife, which is truly admirable.

It talks about a Maths teacher Snehamoy Chakrabarti, who through a series of letters befriends a Japanese girl, Miyage and even marries her without seeing her. Neither of them consider it consequential to meet and it’s a proposal that is merely kept hanging in balance. Snehmoy lives with his ageing aunt and carries on his wholly epistolary relationship for more than 20 years feeling mostly content to have a wife who he can share his feelings with, without actually having to take on the pressures that come with marriage. Now, it’s easy to read this as escapism but the bond of love he feels for his Japanese wife is real. The village is enchanted with the colourful kites and other gift packets she sends him by post.
Meanwhile, Snehamoy’s house has an unexpected guest – the same girl who he was supposed to have married, now widowed with a son. Physical proximity with her leads him to develop some feelings but he quickly restrains himself knowing he’s married.

The story has an unexpected twist but this is one that rings true inspite of it being a rather peculiar love story. That the bonds of love transcend every conceivable boundary and matters of heart follow a rhyme and rhythm of their own is an intensely poignant theme. Also, there's a certain lyrical, surrual beauty to the story here.
Wish one could say the same for all the others.