One had always suspected that the saffron lobby’s Hindi fervour was a political position like “love jihad” and cow protection. Now, India’s ruling party has been upstaged by Italy’s ultra-nationalist coalition whose Brothers of Italy constituent has chosen a sister, 46-year-old Giorgia Meloni, as Prime Minister despite its absolute parliamentary majority. If the bill it has announced becomes law, Italians will be fined up to 100,000 euros ($108,750) for using foreign, meaning English, terms, in official communications.
“It is not just a matter of fashion, as fashions pass,” they explain, “but Anglomania (has) repercussions for society as a whole”. It “demeans and Mortifies” the land of the immortal Dante. Even the practical justification for English disappeared when Britain stormed out of the European Union, literally illustrating the “Channel frozen, Continent isolated” gag that supposedly provided a London newspaper headline one bitter winter.
Unlike Italians and other Continentals, Indians, like all former colonials, nurse a certain guilty pride about proficiency in English. External affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar boasts of India’s tricolour flying higher than the Union Jack in flawless English, not in his native Tamil or in India’s rashtra bhasha, that is Hindi. Ms Meloni should denounce that recourse to English as “demeaning” and “mortifying”, but a loyal BJP stalwart like Mr Jaishankar can chuckle that the proud Italians did not hesitate to borrow the “Atma Nirbhar Bharat” — or “self-reliant” concept — from India, even naming Adolfo Urso “Minister for Business and Made in Italy”. It’s another matter that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself took the concept from Jawaharlal Nehru’s determination to conserve foreign exchange by making import substitution the cornerstone of his economic planning.
As minister for commerce and industry, Piyush Goyal seems the most logical candidate for the additional “Made in India” appellation, but one suspects that the distinction being so patriotically emotive, the Prime Minister might want to reserve it for himself. Given the flamboyance of his attire for ceremonial occasions, it would be an apt description for a man who also likes to teasingly call himself a “faqir” with a “jhola”. But unlike his Italian counterpart, Mr Modi is never likely to call himself an “underdog” — a phrase that Ms Meloni apparently uttered in English not long ago.
Like Italians, Indians too take liberties with language. The veteran editor of Kolkata’s now vanished Amrita Bazar Patrika is believed to have retorted, when asked about his paper’s execrable English, that since the British were our enemies and we couldn’t harm them in any other way, he was doing his best to destroy their language. The rejoinder came from the English academic, Humphrey House, who taught for a while at Calcutta University. House claimed that his Bengali had improved tremendously as a result of reading the Patrika every day.
No wonder an American author wondered whether a supposedly bilingual Italian really also spoke English or merely thought he did.
If he was baffled by an Italian woman smearing “col-cream” on her face or her husband squandering time and money in a “nihgt” (nightclub), India’s “prepone” must be equally confusing and “cousin brother” downright contradictory.
In acting against English, Italy has taken its cue from neighbouring France where the intrusion of foreign words has been forbidden since before the First World War, although the objection wasn’t always seriously enforced.
However, a Commission on Terminology was set up in 1970. Five years later the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language law had imposed fines for using illegal Anglicisms. In 1984 — the year of the Orwellian apocalypse — the Commissariat General de la Langue Francaise was established to guard linguistic virginity.
Not that the vigilance was always successful. Although TWA, a popular American airline up to 2001, was fined for adding insult to injury by issuing boarding cards only in English, the astute French were not going to be done out of some of the good things of life just because they emanated from the Anglophone world. They enjoyed their gadgets, deplored a holdup, wore blue jeans during leisurely weekends, shopped in self-service supermarkets, and brought abuses to the notice of the manager. Just as the aura of Merrie England didn’t affect the popularity of “rosbif”, a “bif-tek” became as popular in France as the chicken tikka masala in England.
In fact, there were remarkably few prosecutions for linguistic multiculturalism. In 1988 the Ecole Centrale de Paris, a revered engineering institute, even made it mandatory for students who had no plans for ever leaving France to work abroad to speak and write fluent English, a requirement that could usefully be introduced in India’s medical and engineering colleges.
Unlike France’s President Francois Mitterrand, no Indian ruler will ever declare that his country “is engaged in a war with Anglo-Saxons”. One reason could be that the discerning French recognise the potential peril of larding their speech with unfamiliar words and phrases from an alien tongue. A well-testified tale has it that at a farewell lunch that he gave for General Charles de Gaulle and Madame de Gaulle at the end of the Second World War when they were leaving their exile in Britain to return home, Winston Churchill asked Madame what she was most looking forward to.
Pat came the reply: “A penis!” “What!” Churchill burst out, and again Madame de Gaulle repeated: “A penis!” While everyone sat in stunned silence, the general turned to his wife and explained: “I think, my dear, the English pronounce it ‘appiness’!”
Another reason — which also explains why Arvind Kejriwal is such a nosey parker — is social snobbery. As an Indian Institute of Technology graduate and erstwhile member of the Indian Revenue Service, Mr Kejriwal may be one of the most fluent English speakers in India’s political elite. He is understandably curious about the competition from Race Course Road, sorry, Lok Kalyan Marg.
Being sharply rapped on the knuckles for inquisitiveness and saddled with a Rs. 25,000 fine — reminders that this “Vishwa Guru” and Mother of Democracies tolerates no prying — is no deterrent for Delhi’s chief minister, who noted that “atma nirbhar” loyalty did not prevent Mr Modi from spurning Gujarati and Hindi and turning to Engl-ish to make his momentous televised speech on the partial demonetisation in November 2016.
Italy and France may affect to decry English, and Singapore frown on Singlish.
But Hinglish, a cherished reminder of the Raj that we love to hate, will forever remain India’s pride and glory.
The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author