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.

Adopting English words into Indian languages has been a tradition since the colonial era. Today, expressions such as “batchmate” and “cent percent” are today part of native regional languages spoken across India, even by “convent-educated” people. Bengalis, however, seem to have a special knack for manipulating words borrowed from the English lexicon.

Plenty of instances of tweaking and twisting English may be found in Hootum Pyanchar Naksha, a series of vignettes published in the form of stand-alone chapbooks over 1861 and 1862, which lampooned the social mores of nineteenth-century Kolkata. In this first work of modern Bengali prose, written by Kaliprasanna Sinha under the pen name “Hootum”—screech owl, in Bengali—“subpoena” is tenderised to “sawfen,” and “phaeton” is recast as “pheting,” almost as if to resonate with the sound of its juddering journey down Kolkata’s potholed roads (which haven’t changed all that much in a century and a half). The last consonant of “warrant” is dropped to turn it into “warrin,” almost as a throwback to David Copperfield. Chemistry is fondly shortened to “chemia.”

A few years after Naksha was published, the child Rabindranath Tagore began going to Normal School in Kolkata. One of the things he remembered from his brief years in academe (he would soon start to play truant, and subsequently say goodbye to the formal education system for good) was being made to recite a song at school assembly. Its lyrics were a corruption of the original English. The only fragment he retained from the song afterwards was the phrase “Kallokeepullokeesingil, mellaling, mellaling, mellaling.” It intrigued him for a long time until, as an adult, he seemed to decipher some of the words underneath the sonic palimpsest of generations of mishearing and mispronunciation.

“After much thought I have been able to guess at the original of a part of it,” writes Tagore in My Reminiscences. “Of what words kallokee is the transformation still baffles me. The rest I think was: ... full of glee, singing merrily, merrily, merrily!”

There cannot be a happier and more logically apt adaptation of “full of glee” than “pullokee,” for it has near-homonyms in Bengali, “pulok,”“puloke” and “pulokito,” which mean thrill, caused by thrill and thrilled. These were words Tagore used liberally in the over 3,500 songs he went on to write, and mean pretty much the same thing as “full of glee,” or at any rate, share the same ethos. Although there was nothing particularly edifying or uplifting about the ritual chanting of those words for Tagore as a child. The incongruous juxtaposition of the imagined English, and its corrupted native adaptation, was something the poet could look back on with tenderness and faint amusement.

Ledikeni — deep-fried balls of cottage cheese coated in semolina and sugar—were named after Lady Charlotte Canning, the alabasterskinned wife of Lord Charles Canning, a nineteenth century governor general of India. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Much of the fun in adapting English words to Bengali was in giving these a ludicrous twist, bringing to mind something that was often the original’s bizarre opposite. The legendary confectioner Bhim Chandra Nag supposedly named deep-fried balls of cottage cheese, rolled in semolina and dunked in sugar syrup, after Countess Charlotte Canning, the wife of Lord Charles Canning, the governor general of India from 1856 to 1862. Christening the lethally sweet confection “ledikeni”—a mangled version of Lady Canning—is the handiwork of a master craftsman. Imagining the first lady of colonial India—by any reckoning, an alabaster-skinned memsahib, turned out in yards of fine fabric—as a sticky deep-fried cottage-cheese ball with a luminous rust-brown coat, indicates a rather mischievous mind at work, comparable to Picasso’s when he painted Dora Maar as a contorted blue peacock with one breast.

In his sketches on Kolkata’s social life, Sinha reinvented “catechist” as “Catty-Christ.” “Jackson” was rendered “Jakh Sen,” which could pass as a Bengali name. “Tartar emetic” was compressed to “Tartametic”—suggesting that this vomit-inducing medicine, often administered to patients suffering from the deadly kala-azar, was both quick and efficient—and the words “grand jury” were transliterated to something sounding very close to “grandeur.”

A century and a half after Naksha, the tradition continues, although perhaps in a slightly more obvious, less creative way. Not all that much is left to the imagination any more. Sometimes, the route from English to Bengali is via Hindi. For example, two derivatives of the word “fundamental” current in Bengali overlap with similar versions in Hindi: “funda,” meaning sound knowledge in a certain area of study (“I’m afraid I don’t have much funda on the theory of genetic algorithms”); and “fundu,” meaning superb, if also slightly kooky (“Did you catch Dibakar Banerjee’s new Byomkesh movie? It’s fundu, yaar.”)

Someone who’s being a bit silly over, say, a lost pen, is asked to stop being so “senti.” She may even be told to desist from “giving sentu,” if she cannot stop apologising to the person who gifted it to her. When a stockbroker demonstrates that she is as good at painting votive articles with rice-powder solution at weddings as she is at juggling figures, her in-laws are likely to be impressed by her “cali,” a clipped version of “calibre,” to say nothing of her energy and “enthu”—similarly shortened from “enthusiasm”—especially if the wedding in question is in fact her own. Someone who’s itching and sprouting red blisters at the onset of spring—a euphemism for the protracted humid season in Kolkata—will be asked to consult a doctor to make sure it wasn’t “chiku,” although instances of adults contracting chickenpox have become extremely rare since the introduction of a vaccine.

I would, however, give the crown for the best English-derived colloquialism to “panu,” a bowdlerised word for X-rated films, of the sort I, growing up before the internet revolution, was able to catch only past midnight on Fridays, after my parents had fallen asleep, thanks to the local cable channel operator’s munificence. “Panu” makes for a smart code name—a convenient camouflage—if you want to talk about it with a close friend at a party in the presence of someone with a pair of delicate ears.

The word brings to mind an archetype of pubescent curiosity and daring to anyone who has read the stories of the writer Leela Majumdar, which were ostensibly written for a young audience. Panu is one of the two protagonists in Majumdar’s adventure series—a more wide-eyed and imaginative foil to his older cousin, the cocksure Gupi. His name conjures up images of a lanky teenager with thin, knobby legs sticking out from underneath oversized half-pants, sometimes fondly called “hapu” (as opposed to “full-pants,” which, in the children’s stories of a certain era, only a bona fide adult, with a career and perhaps a wife, would be allowed to possess). A Panu would be the sort of lad who originated from the close-knit beehive of dank, dark, colonial-era buildings tucked somewhere into the labyrinthine alleys of north Kolkata. Such a character might often go exploring, making it a point to sneak into places where he had been expressly forbidden to go. The name “Panu” went out of fashion at least half a century ago. So, indeed, did those neighbourhoods, except in nostalgia-riddled movies which recreate those sinuous alleyways and exposed-brick buildings leaning precariously on each other, complete with a sepia-tinted finish.

SOMETIMES, SAYING IT IN ENGLISH makes an idea sound less crude than in the Bengali original, and also, purportedly, more civil. For instance, while “landlady” sounds respectful enough, no matter what your equation with the said person might be as her tenant, the Bengali equivalent bariwali— which suggests images of the Amazon heroine of the 1930s action film Hunterwali—isn’t considered fit for use in polite conversation. Only the terribly coarse, or the terribly self-assured, would refer to bodily functions by their Bengali names while in public.

The writer Jyotirindra Nandi bludgeoned Bengali readers’ assumptions of what was fit to consume in printed form when he opened a short story with a line that might be translated from Bengali as, “Madhuri’s gone crapping.” In the 1960s, when the story was written, “Madhuri” was a stylish name, bringing to mind a city-bred young woman, with a long, healthy plait, holding a couple of books close to her chest on her way to university.

The name “Madhuri” went well with the image of a refreshing new breed of woman, trying to find her place in a politically volatile and economically unstable society. These women stepped out of their homes to supplement their husbands’ uncertain incomes. It was not uncommon for them to become their families’ breadwinners. And yet, back home at the end of the day, they managed to slide right back into the role of the dutiful housewife, bringing fathers-in-law their evening dose of medicine. To mention “crapping” in the same breath as a name evoking this model of womanly softness, resilience and fortitude was bold and bizarre, and certainly not meant to be beautiful.

Nowadays, even those who speak a more or less unadulterated version of Bengali—as opposed to the hybrid admixture of Bengali, Hindi and English that is fashionable among the hipster Bengalis of Kolkata—often prefer to introduce their spouses as a “missus” or a “husband,” in the latter case sometimes even as “amaar mister.” The Bengali equivalents of these terms are a little too sombre, being the same as the Sanskrit originals stree and swami, and are hence considered to be from another time. The more colloquial Bengali terms, on the other hand—bou for wife and bor for husband—sound a tad cheesy, as if the relationship they describe belongs in the realm of dolls’ houses and role play. Today, as Binayak Bandyopadhyay, the youngish author of a dozen Bengali novels, once told me, “Nobody thinks you’re serious unless you say ‘I love you’ to them in English.”

Romance and revolution were the two unselfish impulses that once supposedly occupied and stimulated the Bengali psyche. It seems ironic that they now have to be expressed in a borrowed language to convey seriousness of intent. The Bengali words for “kiss” and “sex” sound more corny than romantic. The vocabulary of protest in Bengali is made up almost entirely of words from English—poster, pamphlet, barricade, cordon, lathi-charge, tear gas, comrade, party, manifesto, slogan. Their Bengali equivalents are hard to find even in political handouts.

Even many Kolkatans who have never been to school use English words as part of an otherwise Bengali vocabulary. Words such as “scene,” “time” and “border” are freely employed by the city’s working-class women and men, who toil as domestic helpers or assistants to masons, carpenters and plumbers. Many come from scores of kilometres south or east of Kolkata, speed-walking their way on village roads and along embankments between submerged rice fields to the nearest railway station, to catch the day’s first train to the city. Most of them, committed to a life of “daily passenger-i,” as they call it, assume certain English words to be a part of the only language they know. These include “heavy” (meaning splendid or awesome), “fact” (meaning the storyline of a film—in other words, its fictional content) and “lover” (connoting a boyfriend, admirer, suitor or casual flirt, or even someone of the opposite sex who’s simply being nice). It is an auditory vocabulary, osmosed into the lexicon of a mostly unlettered working class from the districts of Bengal as a result of continuous exposure to the hybrid lingo of the city’s university-educated denizens.

So much so that if you ask a rickshaw-puller to take you to a certain vishwavidyalaya, he will likely tell you to speak more plainly and translate into Bengali by just saying “university.” A taxi driver will probably tell you to take a hike when asked to drive you to the bimaan-bandar, a destination no one in his line of work has ever heard of, unless you care to explain that it is only the airport. The Bengali terms for steam engine and bicycle are so painful to pronounce that they are probably better off as museum exhibits. The Bengali words denoting post and post office, radio and television, library and income tax have all long been banished to the pages of Bengali-language newspapers, which for some inexplicable reason still stick to a vocabulary that’s no longer in common use. English-language newspapers, on their part, also cleave to an argot that might have been current in colonial Kolkata, describing the “imbibing” of values taught at schools where education is “imparted,” where English is the “medium of instruction” in classes held “thrice” a day. It’s a language that has not changed all that much since 1835, when the education policy prescribed by Thomas Babington Macaulay spawned the first generation of clerks trained to write memos in English.

To be fair, certain English words don’t translate all that well into Bengali, and their translations can confuse more than they clarify. A certain Bengali translation of the Biblical verse beginning “For God so loved the world” sounds like a description of god making passionate love to the world he has just created.

There are two Bengali terms for deconstruction, binirmaan and abinirmaan. Both were coined by adding negative prefixes to the Bengali word nirmaan, meaning “to build,” or the act of building. But then binirmaan is another word for construction, as the academic and translator Probal Dasgupta points out in his essay ‘Archives, Arcades and Translations of Neologisms.’ So we have abinirmaan, put together by affixing a double negative to the central idea. In other words, we could go round in circles trying to find an apt Bengali word for deconstruction—and they would be concentric circles, for the more prefixes one adds to counter the ones preceding them, the greater the risk of moving away from the core. It ties up, bizarrely, with the Derridean thesis of frustrated slippages between meaning and its eternal deferral, which he holds to be inherent in attempts to get near it.

A COUPLE OF DECADES EARLIER, the ability to switch effortlessly between the two languages, to insert the right English word or turn of phrase at the right place in an otherwise Bengali speech to make a point, was a token of accomplishment. For a long time, a section of Kolkata’s population got away with murder, bailed out by the ability to speak lucid, correct English with authority. Those still trying to learn would stop outside the doors of the English-enabled, and look at them with awe and longing from the other side of the threshold.

This began to change in the first decade of this millennium. In December 2004, at a public event in Kolkata, a man in the audience asked Salman Rushdie, “Sir, tell us about the day when you heard about the fatwa. Did you go to the local thana and get a diary?”—meaning, did Rushdie file a complaint with the local police station?

English, once the rarefied language of the upper classes, is now, in gloriously twisted bits and pieces, common currency. ADEEL HALIM / BLOOMBERG / GETTY IMAGES

The new generation of English users does not hold itself back. Propelled by a confidence acquired from reading thin novels of campus romance and watching movies about urban love by film-makers such as Karan Johar, they charge ahead boldly, speaking a hybrid mix of Hindi, Bengali and English peppered with phrases such as “sheesh” and “hell no!” This merry bunch seems to have found a way around “conversational English,” a pop variety of the Queen’s language where one does not need to be too particular about grammar. They are not afraid of sounding funny or unschooled in the way they manipulate the language, and are brazen about it when they do. So much so that the urban Bengali, once known for having a touch of class even if he were poor, now prefers to split the bill “his, his, whose, whose”—that is, to go Dutch—when dining out with close friends.

English is the new language of the asinine and the vulgar. It is now also used at unprecedented levels of inelegance and prejudice. In late 2012, Abhijeet Mukherjee, the son of India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee, gave an interview to a Bengali news channel in Kolkata, in which he referred to a section of those protesting the December 2012 gang-rape in Delhi as “dented and painted” women trying to pass themselves off as students. It seemed to him that these “made-up” women had joined the demonstrations as a matter of fashion, attracted by their supposed glamour. His choice of analogy, of weather-beaten cars painted over to hide the scars of time, was probably not self-conscious, much like his rhyming of two English words inserted in an otherwise Bengali speech, which added a ludicrous twist to an already offensive idea.

A few months ago, Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s chief minister, used the word “bamboo” at a public meeting to an effect that made even an audience now well-prepared for her particular rhetoric squirm in their seats. “They were in power for 34 years and did nothing,” she said of the communist government which preceded her own. The opposition, she claimed, was trying to obstruct her by raking up a controversy over her alleged involvement in a chit-fund scam. “Now,” she went on, “they are shoving the bamboo”—that is, shoving it up the rear ends—“of those who are trying to get things done.” Notably, for enhanced effect Banerjee used “bamboo” over its Bengali equivalent, which is also in current use to mean the exact same thing.

I was reminded of a day in 2007, when a veteran leader of the then ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) threatened to hem the village of Nandigram in from three sides and make life hell for its peasants, who were grabbing headlines with their resistance to the state’s intention to industrialise the area. The words “life” and “hell” were said in English, presumably for the same reasons that Bengalis need to be told “I love you” in English—so that they know the person saying it means business. Banerjee once said she would make Kolkata a new London; we are probably already closer to it than we think.

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.