, , , , , , , , , , ,

English helps us maintain a distance

English creates barriers of formality.Photo: Thinkstock

Last week, my  colleague came home to invite us for his wedding. No big deal. This, after all, is normal in India, where protocol dictates that you go in person to invite people, and occasionally strangers, to family events.
Sending an embossed invitation with a follow-up phone call will not do. In India, we like the personal touch. We dutifully visit ageing, long-lost relatives who we barely see over the course of months, sometimes years.
Come wedding season and suddenly the shrewish aunt whom everyone in the family cordially hates becomes the most popular person in the spider web of Indian extended families. Musty ancestral homes become vortexes as nephews and nieces who are in the process of getting married troop in to take the blessings of family elders and invite them to weddings, baptisms and whatnot.

Regional magazines.

In urban India, this has taken a new form. Work colleagues come home to invite the boss-man or boss-woman to their wedding. And so it came to be that this young man, whom I shall call Raj, came to invite us. An interesting website, called Differencebetween.net, has a whole host of reasons as to why we are this way, the most obvious one being that Indians are family-oriented. India is also hierarchical. In the still-rigid social, familial and cultural hierarchies that define India, nonagenarian toothless relatives come first; followed by college professors, scholars, senior citizens and only then superiors within the workplace who are often called “chairman-ma’am” instead of being addressed by their name. Work-life boundaries blur as junior employees phone and invite themselves home with a simple excuse: “Ma’am (or Sir), I would like to come home and invite you for my wedding.” In such situations, the bosses, however much they believe in privacy, can scarcely refuse to allow the young analyst from entering the sanctum of a home.

That Sunday morning, at 9.30am sharp, just as we finished a hurried breakfast, there he was, ringing our doorbell. Raj was young—maybe 24 or 25 years old. He was lean and had the clean-cut look of a fresh college graduate unsullied by the politics of the workplace.
We chatted politely. Raj handed us his wedding invitation. The wedding was going to be held in Trichy, famous for the keerai (spinach) vadas served near the railway station. The girl’s family was from Trichy, Raj said. As he spoke, my mind began clicking the facts into place. From his name, accent and narrative, I could tell he was Tamilian. I opened my mouth to rattle off some Tamil, my native tongue, and then stopped.
Indians, much like other nationalities, have an inbuilt sensor by which we gauge appearance, accent and name for provenance. Without even looking at a person, most of us can tell caste, region and religion just based on a name. By listening to an accent, we form opinions about social class—we assume that people who don’t speak good English belong to a lower social class; we make value judgements about people based on their grammar; we think people who are uncomfortable with our language are idiots, hence the urge to speak slower to people who are stuttering while speaking a foreign language.
Raj provided all the usual clues and then some, through his traditional wedding invitation; his correct form of address; and his inherent formality.
“Please do come and grace the occasion, ma’am,” he said as he walked out the door.
Later, as I made filter coffee, south Indian style in my kitchen, I wondered why I hadn’t spoken to him in Tamil. I was fluent in it. I spoke it often. When you meet a stranger and you can tell they share a common language, first of all, do you switch from English to Bengali or Hindi or Telugu? Or do you continue speaking in English? Watch yourself next time and let me know. Some part of it has to do with the circumstance. When you are in a boardroom and are introduced to a fellow Sindhi or Kashmiri, it is unlikely that you will switch to your mother tongue in front of others. But what if you are alone, inside your home?
Language, perhaps more than anything else, save sex, is a vehicle for intimacy. It draws people closer. Just talk French to the French and you’ll see how instantly you will become one of them. We may be comfortable in English, our nation’s lingua franca, but we coo to our babies in Marathi, Assamese, or whatever our native tongue happens to be. We may swear in English but we speak to our mothers in our mother tongue. We may call our lovers “sweetie”, but we call our wives or husbands “jaan”. Okay, nowadays we call our spouses and significant others sweetie andjaan, I’ll give you that.
On the flip side, language can also serve as a barrier. Speaking Tamil to a nervous young man who barricaded himself behind the formality of English would have unnerved him. It would have catapulted me from being the boss-man’s wife to becoming a friend. And while I might have been okay with that, I am not sure he was.
Hence English: to maintain a distance.