[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Dec 2013 ]
Very recently, I was on a flight from Zurich to New Delhi, operated by Swiss International Air Lines. My co-passenger was brown like me and had strong opinions on the mis-pronunciation of English words by desis. The person was especially perturbed how even proper nouns and place names were being rendered unrecognizable. My co-passenger was quite sad that this was happening. I mostly did the listening. I guess trans-continental flights are spaces that assume a kind of brown cultural homogeneity and hence a commonly held set of sensibilities. The top 5% income category browns have many worldly burdens. Defending the sanctity of the mother tongue of Anglo-Saxons apparently is one of them.
All through our journey, the captain kept us updated about how the flight was going. The captain, who was Swiss, repeatedly said that out destination city was ‘Deheli’. The firangi word pronunciation Nazi who I was sitting with it seemed to have no take on this. ‘Deheli’ was okay, given the race of the speaker. There was nothing to be ‘corrected’. It was his natural accent. There was no need to graduate into some ‘ higher’ state of correctness, whatever that is. While ‘Deheli’ of Swiss extraction was deemed acceptable, ‘Delly’ is the pronunciation of choice for the uppity. This is what some pack of pale-face marauders had pronounced a few centuries ago and what could be wrong about that. Dehli or Dilli may not sound anything like ‘Delly’ but that did not make ‘Delly’ a mis-pronunciation in my co-passenger’s sensibilities. This sensibility is more widely held. It is my suspicion that the origin and contours of such refined sensibilities and the predictable double-standards hold some clue to the increasingly rootlessness one observes in the metro-centric aspirational classes of the subcontinent.
Now try to imagine the reverse. When someone says ‘New Yaark’ as many in Punjab may do, or ‘Lawndawn’ as many in Bengal do, the brown thikadars of English pronunciation will react with thinly veiled contempt. You may even be ‘corrected’ in ‘good faith’ – ‘See, it is ‘actually’ pronounced like this’. Between these responses, the speaker of ‘Lawndawn’ will be classified by the enlightened brown ones as either being not well rounded enough or being an obstinate non-learner or worst still, getting some vicarious thrill by sticking out.
They will try to explain root-cause of ‘New Yaark’ and ‘Lawndawn’ – you know, socio-economic rungs and such. And that moment of trying to explain is an illuminating moment – it explains the person who is doing the explaining. Their exasperation with ‘Lawndawn’ standing uncorrected goes much further and deeper than plain prickliness about the mother tongue of English people. It veers into the underbellies of their Anglicized exteriors – into ideas of correctness, propriety, higher and lower, sameness and difference, own and foreign, alienation and privilege.
At the centre of this probably stands the fear of being swept away in this brown subcontinent by those who think, imagine and love in their mother tongue. The alienated recognize the confidence that comes with it. That confidence is a threat that needs to be broken; otherwise it has insurgent qualities that might just want to reclaim centre-stage. What absurdity is that, in ‘this time and age’? The speed with which we label something absurd hints at something else. As Allan Bloom said, ‘The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside’. The even sadder bit is that an alienated, self-hating minority is able to dictate the terms of what is this outside.
‘New Yaark’ and ‘Lawndawn’ symbolize exactly the sort of confident agency that is rootless is fearful of, partly because it reminds them of their own ‘non-place’-ness. Identifying deeply with the oppressor’s ‘refinement’, they would rather have agency always stay with the oppressor while they can take on the mantle of being gatekeepers to that enchanted world of refinement. The culturally illiterate Bombay-Delhi bubble urbania, with their undue and incestuous grip on the ideology of indoctrination systems like centres of higher learning, fear things that draw inspiration from the ground beneath their feet, and not from the words of gods from superior worlds. They love to play the role of this native priest (to lesser brown folks) and translator (to remotely enthusiastic firangis). They stand at the gates of modern citizenship in brownland, correcting their backward folks as liberated pundits. I wish it were funny. It is not.