Sunday, July 31, 2005

Interpretation of Good English, or, Love in Tokyo in Kerala

Some time back I had written an article on the online literary forum Caferati, “Your thoughts aren’t written words.” I don’t know if anyone noticed that article or cared to read it. Never mind. If you know my blog address, please be kind enough to visit it and read (as we say in Indian officialese), and leave a comment.

This is a continuation of that debate. I am putting on my thinking cap and examining why Indians can’t decide what is good writing. There is a big controversy raging on Caferati, right this moment on this subject.

When I was a humble sub-editor I would get copy written by journalists who couldn’t spell or write but the content was excellent. They got the story right. We had to re-write the entire stuff for our readers.There were journalists who wrote immaculate English and instructed that only major mistakes should be corrected and they should be informed of the changes.Both these tribes had their own interpretation of writing and we sub-editors knew this. So we worked hard around their ideas and polished it as best as we could. We made it presentable to our readers.

It was fun working on the copy desk. We made jokes about each writer and his/her way of writing. Sometimes we were hauled up by the editor, the big boss himself. He had his own idea of what good writing was. We sub-editors had to paddle carefully around all those icebergs of what was “Good Writing.” I must admit, we did a decent job, given the situation, and had fun playing with language. But we didn’t let anything slip as we had a very, very, good chief sub-editor who taught us what little we know about English language.

In another job, I was fired by an editor just because I misplaced a “the” in a sentence. Not fired, actually, but the relationship worsened and I had to leave. It happened like this. I had written “Indian Patent Act” and the editor, a literary purist, insisted it was “The Indian Patent Act.” I stuck to what I had written. I didn’t know that sitting right next to him was the world’s most powerful research tool, or, the most misguiding tool. Again, interpret it the way you want. He searched “The Indian Patent Act” and found what he wanted to nail me with. But I said if he searched “Indian Patent Act” he would find several references to words strung exactly like that. That led to an argument, which ended in my resignation.

So coming to what I am waffling about, let me explode this myth about good writing. Nobody knows what good writing is. Or, to put it simply, good writing is too subjective a topic, a matter of interpretation. We all have our own concepts, colored by our own education, background, and upbringing. “Arree where going, men?” is okay to some and not palatable to others. One person’s good writing is another’s literary hara-kiri.Even spelling and grammar. Americans spell with an “z” as in “specialized” while British spell with an “s” as in “specialised.” Indians have their own ways of expression like “time-to-time” and “preponed.”

My chief sub-editor said there was something called Punjabi English, Marathi English, Malayalam English, Telugu English, Bengali English, and so on. And I agree. English is written differently by Malayalis like me than by Marathis like many of my friends.So are we agreed on one thing? That English is subjective to various influences and if you approach it with your puritanical rose-tinted glasses it will look downright macabre and unintelligible. Hope we are. So for some suggested solutions.

The solution

The solution? India has to evolve its own brand of English, which is tolerant and not dictatorial and puritanical in interpretation. If we take the colonial or Jesuit-convent-school type of English as pure English, Indians will lag behind in defining their own idiom and will not help Indian English evolve.Even Rushdie used words like “kill-ofy” in his writing. I think that is a good beginning from a Booker winner. We should follow his example and improvise.

Arundhati Roy, another beautiful (I mean this literally) improviser of the language uses words and idioms from Malayalam. She refers to “stick insect” and “Fountain in a Love in Tokyo.” Now “stick insect” is something we use in Malayalam English. Also nobody outside Kerala knows what a Love in Tokyo is.

Just to test Arundhati’s language I went to a general store in Kerala and asked for a “Love in Tokyo.” Yes, believe me, I actually did this.

“Give this man a Love in Tokyo,” the owner of the shop shouted to his salesperson.

Please don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t buying love. Again, people, how misconceived can your interpretation get? I actually wrote “Again, people, how misconceived your interpretation can get?” That is another Indianism, putting the verb at the end of the sentence.

Instead of love, which I wouldn’t have objected to then, the salesperson fished inside several boxes in a dingy corner and came out with my “Love in Tokyo,” which is a hair clip that girls use to hold their hair in place. Ask a Malayali girl if you know one, she will concur.

Shobhaa De, another good improviser of language, is adept at Indianisms. If she finds somebody a “maha bore” I know exactly what she means, more power to her words.

So when a group of Indians from diverse backgrounds get together and discuss what “Good English is,” I tend to choke. With laughter, I mean, because I have been through it enough times to make me puke with choking.

Be tolerant and tolerate interpretations is what I would like to say. If you follow British English stick to your “s” and “coloUr.” If you follow American English stick to your “z” and “color.” If you wish to sprinkle your work with a few qualified regional words, please do. But, not too much, please.Did I make my point? Again, it is subjective and subject to your interpretation.

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