A Tale of Two Tongues

How English turns Bengali in Kolkata

01 October 2015

IN KOLKATA, WE SOMETIMES refer to a particularly clean-cut friend as a “handu” (pronounced “hyan-du”). This Bengali derivative of “handsome” implies a little more than just good looks. It is about appreciation with a touch of affection—a way of telling the bloke, “You’re on my radar.”

Teasing and mutilating the objects to which they take a fancy comes naturally to the Bengalis of Kolkata—observe the torn rexine upholstery exposing the foam and springs armature in the city’s public buses. Bengalis often do the same to English words. Alternatively, they could try and tame the language of their erstwhile rulers with too much care. Long polysyllables are shortened—their sharp, jagged edges clipped and rounded off with soft-sounding vowels. And as the rest of the world, clubbed together under the label of “non-Bengalis,” ought to know, Bengalis, who fancy themselves as cultured, even poetic, are naturally predisposed to rhyming, a tendency much in evidence in the way they adapt English words into everyday speech.

Take the word “dashy-pushy.” By chopping the last three letters off “dashing,” and adding a “y” to ease its coupling with “pushy,” we get a new word. It denotes a go-getter with an unsubtly aggressive edge about him—a slightly pejorative term in its early days, but now one of approval, if not admiration. “Intu-mintu,” a corny description of the act of being intimate, typically as part of a hush-hush affair, is a similar example of softening of the parent word. The neologism also packs a surprise zing—not too different from the sting of raw mustard oil, julienned raw onion and slit green chillies that strikes one’s taste buds from underneath the mousse-like layers of crushed potatoes in aloo-bhaatey, a favourite Bengali side dish.

Chitralekha Basu 's short fiction, literary essays and translations have been published most recently in Asia Literary ReviewOpen Road Review and The Missing Slate. She is an arts writer with China Daily in Hong Kong.