1 July 2011
Does ‘Hinglish’ democratise English, or bastardise Hindi?
First of a two-part piece on Hinglish, published on www.firstpost.com
June 29, 2011
In a scene in Rang de Basanti (2006), a young man in contemporary Delhi, faced with a letter which says, “Maine azaadi se shaadi kar li hai”, can only respond in bafflement: “Who talks like this now?”
“People in non-metropolitan centres in India do, but they are not the ones projected as templates for modernity,” responds academic Rita Kothari in an essay published in the anthology Chutnefying English: The Phenomenon of Hinglish. Not only are people who “talk like this” perceived as ‘not modern’, to the young urban metropolitan upper middle class, they are practically invisible.
As a young woman who writes screenplays and dialogue for Bollywood recently informed me, people “in real life” no longer say things like “Kya waqt hua hai?” or “Tum yahan kaise?”. The idea of speaking full sentences in Hindi is now so anachronistic as to be automatically funny.
The recent popular film Bheja Fry 2 (its title itself a stellar example of Hinglish) derives much of its humour from the fact that Bharat Bhushan, tax inspector and old Hindi film song enthusiast, speaks almost entirely in Hindi. This is apparently hilarious, not just within the upper middle class world of Bheja Fry 2 – a TV crew, corporate bigwigs, passengers on a luxury cruise – but also in the world of the audience watching the movie. As one reviewer remarked by way of explanation, “Bharat Bhushan is the sort of person who refers to the island as taapu.”
But taapu is, in fact, the most everyday word for island in Hindi/Urdu. The only others I can think of offhand are the more Sanskritic ‘dweep’ or the Arabic-origin ‘jazeera’. What the reviewer – and the filmmakers – assume is that most Bheja Fry 2 viewers – even if they are ostensibly speaking in Hindi – would use the English word ‘island’.
This, then, is the power of Hinglish.
English loanwords into Hindi no longer supplement an existing Hindi vocabulary – they replace existing terms and words. For large numbers of speakers, Hindi words for relationship terms, colours, left/right directions, parts of a house, garments, time and a vast number of items have been “all but displaced by their English equivalents,” argues Hindi professor Rupert Snell in another essay included the book. For example: “Daddy ki blue shirt bathroom ki table par padi hai,” or “Maine apni sister ko eighteenth birthday par dress present kari”.
The oddest English words to have become ubiquitous among Hindi speakers are “life” – and even more so – “death”: the latter a single uninflected usage that has displaced an entire range of possibilities – mrityu, maut, dehaant, nidhan, swarg sidhaarna. “An unfortunate side effect of this process is that the Hindi words themselves begin to sound quaint and exotic,” says Snell.
Think of taapu again, and you realize Snell is absolutely right. The lingua franca of contemporary Indian popular culture, and — in a mutually reinforcing loop — the language actually spoken by the consumers of that culture, is Hinglish. Whether it is a phrase like “Lock kiya jaaye” from Kaun Banega Crorepati, advertising slogans like “Hungry kya?” or “Life bane jingalala”, or the title of every second Bollywood film (just this month’s releases include Luv Ka The End, Always Kabhi Kabhi, Bhindi Bazaar Inc., Kuchh Luv Jaisa and Double Dhamaal), Hinglish is now accepted currency in the media.
But what is Hinglish?
The mixture of Hindi and English is not new. Prof. Harish Trivedi, who teaches English at Delhi University, cites a ghazal written in 1887 by Ayodhya Prasad Khatri:
“Rent Law ka gham karen ya Bill of Income Tax ka?
Kya karen apna nahiin hai sense right nowadays.
… Darkness chhaaya hua hai Hind men chaaro taraf
Naam ki bhi hai nahiin baaqi na light nowadays.”
While it sounds startlingly contemporary, Khatri’s ghazal is not the same as, say, the lyrics of a song from Always Kabhi Kabhi:
“Thoda sa complicated hai yeh love ka art,
Undi the condi of my heart;
Kehte hai ki pyar mein, Feelings ko feel karo;
Main toh kehta hun bas, Fun mein deal karo [Oh yeah]”
The difference is that Khatri’s lyrics are meant as parody, while the 21st century ‘Undi the Condi” is written entirely in earnest.
Both Harish Trivedi and writer Namita Gokhale have independently traced the first non-parodic use of Hinglish to ‘Neeta’s Natter’, Shobha De’s famous Stardust column of the 1970s. Trivedi takes a swipe at “natty Nita [who] felt obliged to go slumming in the language of the masses” because “only Hindi words could convey the real zing and sting” of industry gossip. Gokhale, on the other hand, celebrates De as the heroine who “unleashed a whole new dhakar street vocabulary”, “absolutely nanga-karoed things”.
In the end it comes down to which end one looks at Hinglish from. Does Hinglish democratise English, or bastardise Hindi? Is Hindi’s absorption of English words proof that it wins hands down “in the battle for hybridity”? Or is the onslaught of English beginning to make Hindi’s “innate lexicon… appear esoteric… even within its own geographic territory”?
Is Hinglish “the language of fun on Indian terms”, the marker of a world in which Rupert Murdoch could only succeed in capturing a mass Indian audience by ‘chutnefying’ his English programming? Or is it the self-congratulatory voice of a minuscule elite that is successfully selling a top-down vision of coolth to Indian youth? Is Hinglish really a socially unifying force in a deeply stratified society, reducing the gap between a once hoity-toity English-speaking elite and the “vernacs”, or will it remain forever marked by who uses it, and how?
Whichever way one looks at it, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Hinglish is our inevitable fate. And that Hindi has brought Hinglish upon itself.
In Part II: Why Hindi is losing the battle against Hinglish