Language evolves and the healthier the language is, the more prone it is to adaptation, evolution, flexibility
“A young courtesan called Pakeezah
Was known as a royal prick-teaser
Any Princeling who had ceased to please her”
From Punch-nama, by Bachchoo
Several years ago, a gang of famous footballers, two of whom played for England’s national team, went to a club in Leeds where they encountered a group of Asian university students who, they alleged, made snooty remarks about their intellectual abilities and spoilt celebrity social manners.
As the students left the venue, the footballers attacked and grievously injured two of them, who had to be hospitalised. The celebrity players were charged with assault and grievous bodily harm. Serious offences.
A northern TV channel rang me to ask if I would follow the footballers’ trial and write a drama about the incident. It was huge national news and I, of course, agreed.
I went to Hull where the trial was being held and attended court each day, sitting in the public gallery. As the trial progressed, I was asked by the channel’s drama department to outline the plot and sketch the possibilities of dramatic presentation.
There was a sensational story to be told with twists and turns as a black footballer, a friend of the defendants, assisted them in an attempt to escape the charges and later, out of “racial” loyalty, sided with the victims and withdrew his false alibi.
I wrote the outline of the drama and called it “I Could Murder an Indian”. The title, which amused the commissioning editors, was borrowed from the expression late-night pub-leavers use to express their extreme appetite for a “curry”. On leaving the pub after a belly-and-bladder-full of pints, they proceed to a most-probably Bangladeshi-owned restaurant and “murder” a vindaloo, urging the waiter to make it extra hot.
The restaurants are popularly known as “curry houses” -- and who doesn’t know the word? I grew up in India knowing that a dhansak or a dopiaza was a distinct entity, but that there were also concoctions called “chicken curry” or “Goan prawn curry”, etc.
It never occurred to me -- and perhaps not to most people who used it, that there was anything offensive in the word. Obviously, if our Parsi dhansak or lagan-no-saahs was labelled a “curry”, one would object on the grounds that “all generalisations are wrong”. But how seriously would one bother to object?
And now, gentle reader, the linguistic warriors of the United States have taken up arms against this sea of generalisations. A young lady called Chaheti Bansal, a blogger of Indian recipes, no doubt excellent, authentic ones, has caused a media flurry by condemning the word. She wants it written out of the vocabulary, arguing that every region and sub-region in India has its own particular cuisine, and that culling these diverse cuisines into the trap of a generalised term is an act of “colonialism”.
Ms Bansal has been joined by that doyenne of Indian recipes, Madhur Jaffrey, who in keeping with a current black American objection, says that calling Indian food “curry” is cultural expropriation.
Then there is our own London Parsi restaurateur Cyrus Todywalla, who says the term gives him a lot of trouble as ignorant customers overlook the distinguished nuances of his menu and demand “curry”.
Now it’s true that the term probably came about through the distortions that the British colonisers imposed while adopting Indian terms. Some say that the word “curry” is a distortion of the South Indian “kadi”. I can’t vouch for this and don’t feel impelled at the moment to look up my copy of Hobson Jobson to see if the etymology of the word gets a mention.
For myself, gentle reader? I must confess, I don’t get worked up about words. Sticks and stones? Yes, I avoid them, “but woids would never hoit me!” -- you see? A Brooklynisation of English as Ogden Nash would have it.
And I bet Ms Bansal, 27, when asked how she is, answers “I am good” -- giving us a snapshot of her moral nature rather than of her health.
Language evolves and the healthier the language is, the more prone it is to adaptation, evolution, flexibility -- adapting to an ever-changing world. Sanskrit, for instance, when its grammar and vocabulary were governed by the strict laws that the great grammarian Panini laid down for it, didn’t adapt and evolve. Instead, it broke into myriad other Indian languages, related but distinct. And, of course, if Panini had been alive today, he would, through an unjust linguistic quirk, be regarded as an Italian sandwich.
Ms Bansal may be making a very valid point in seeking to ban the C word, but my estimation is that it’s a cry in the wilderness. I checked five Indian recipe books and the word is used to describe some dish or the other in all of them. Or maybe that’s not contemporary evidence, and I should try Internet recipes instead? Okay, I just did! Lots of dishes called “curry”.
And so, gentle reader, it’s possible that you want to know how “I could murder an Indian” progressed. Well, a right-wing national newspaper contrived to interview the victims’ parents and printed the interview which, the judge ruled, was sub-judice and subverted the case, which he then dismissed. For this deliberate transgression, the newspaper was fined a sum which it could well afford. So, no conviction, no drama! You win some…