Thursday 9 June 2016

We need a new language

I remember hearing in a lecture a long time ago that English, the language, is very closely tied to Christianity. It isn’t just that so many of the proverbs and phrasing of the language comes from the King James Bible, but also, concepts like good, evil, sin, propriety, and relationships are expressed in English in the framework created by Christianity.

We could probably expand the concept to talk of “the western world and environment” that is served well by English. There was a post on Reddit India recently, where a popular Hindi movie dialogue couldn’t be translated correctly into English without losing the context entirely, just because the value systems were different.

As readers and literary types in India, what do we gain from adoption of English as our language? As it is, because we start off with the extremely limited English vocabulary, we are at a disadvantage. But we also are unable to explain so many concepts of the Indian mindset in the language. The average vocabulary size of the “new Indian fiction”, i.e., the works of Chetan Bhagat and Ravinder Singh and his like, is really small compared to the equivalent kind of popular mass-market fiction in the American or British market.

Let’s not talk of the “literary” writing, say, of Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh. The vocabulary of these writers is probably equivalent to the western writer, but their mass-market reach much more limited - may be, or may be not, because of this same “hard” vocabulary.

What we need is mass-market fiction that creates a rich, deep English, but which is not exactly the same as the western language. Maybe it’s created by inserting Hindi or other language words into the English. Maybe it’s just the Rushdie-type language, utilized to do thrillers or horror fiction. Or maybe we just wait for ten more years, while the New Indian Fiction market matures and the readers are more accepting of a denser language.

It’s not like this hasn’t been done before. Hammett and Chandler created the “street-smart PI” language that is so well established today. Melville created the “Nantucketer”. Dickens created and established his own blend of English. Anime and Manga translators, and recently, Chinese product label makers (is there a different word for them?) are creating a typical pidgin that is instantly recognizable. And our movie makers have created dozens of different lingos that every Hindi moviegoer recognizes: the Christian “Lion” crime-boss language, the Goan fisherman/aunty, the Marwari seth, the transgender… Read Hindi pulp fiction, and you will see these languages used generously in it.

If Indian Fiction, as a genre, is to grow, it needs to develop that custom vocabulary and sentence patterns that reflect the linguistic capabilities of its readers. Many of those readers may be like our famous neighbourhood aunty, but some day or the other, she’s going to have learn to say “basket”!

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