Recently, on a flight from Zurich to New Delhi, I had a brown co-passenger with strong opinions on the mispronunciation of English words by desis. The person was especially perturbed how even proper nouns and place names were being rendered unrecognizable. I listened. The top 5 per cent income category browns have many worldly burdens. Defending the sanctity of the English people’s mother tongue apparently is one of them.
The Swiss flight captain repeatedly said that out destination city was ‘Deheli’. The firangi-word pronunciation Nazi had no take on this. ‘Deheli’ was somehow okay. 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 ‘incorrect’ about that? Dehli or Dilli may not sound anything like ‘Delly’ but that didn’t make ‘Delly’ a mispronunciation in my co-passenger’s sensibilities. It is my suspicion that the origin and contours of such sensibilities and the predictable double-standards are not unrelated 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, brown thikadars of English pronunciation will react with thinly veiled contempt. You may be ‘corrected’ in ‘good faith’. The ‘Lawndawn’ speaker will be classified as either being not well rounded enough or being an obstinate non-learner or worse, getting some vicarious thrill by sticking out.
They will explain as the ‘root-cause’ of ‘New Yaark’ and ‘Lawndawn’ — socio-economic rungs and such. Their exasperation with ‘Lawndawn’ standing uncorrected goes deeper than plain prickliness about the sanctity of English people’s mother tongue. 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 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? 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’.
Identifying deeply with the oppressor’s ‘refinement’, the culturally rootless would rather have agency with the oppressor while they can gatekeep that enchanted world. The Bombay-Delhi bubble urbania, with their undue, 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 native priest (to lesser browns) and translator (to remotely enthusiastic firangis). ‘New Yaark’ and ‘Lawndawn’ symbolize the sort of confident agency that some are irritated by, partly because it reminds them of their own alienation. They fear that ‘Lawndawn’-ers might bring down ‘London’ and other such props of a brittle selfhood.
The author is a brain scientist at MIT