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A collaboration over too much coffee.
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03 August, 2005

Interpretation of Good English, or, Love in Tokyo in Kerala

Interpretation of Good English, or, Love in Tokyo in Kerala

Some time back I had written an article on the online literary forum Caferati, “Your thoughts aren’t written words.” I don’t know if anyone noticed that article or cared to read it. Never mind. If you know my blog address, please be kind enough to visit it and read (as we say in Indian officialese), and leave a comment.This is a continuation of that debate. I am putting on my thinking cap and examining why Indians can’t decide what is good writing. There is a big controversy raging on Caferati, right this moment on this subject.

When I was a humble sub-editor I would get copy written by journalists who couldn’t spell or write but the content was excellent. They got the story right. We had to re-write the entire stuff for our readers.There were journalists who wrote immaculate English and instructed that only major mistakes should be corrected and they should be informed of the changes.

Both these tribes had their own interpretation of writing and we sub-editors knew this. So we worked hard around their ideas and polished it as best as we could. We made it presentable to our readers.It was fun working on the copy desk. We made jokes about each writer and his/her way of writing. Sometimes we were hauled up by the editor, the big boss himself. He had his own idea of what good writing was. We sub-editors had to paddle carefully around all those icebergs of what was “Good Writing.” I must admit, we did a decent job, given the situation, and had fun playing with language. But we didn’t let anything slip as we had a very, very, good chief sub-editor who taught us what little we know about English language.

In another job, I was fired by an editor just because I misplaced a “the” in a sentence. Not fired, actually, but the relationship worsened and I had to leave. It happened like this. I had written “Indian Patent Act” and the editor, a literary purist, insisted it was “The Indian Patent Act.” I stuck to what I had written. I didn’t know that sitting right next to him was the world’s most powerful research tool, or, the most misguiding tool. Again, interpret it the way you want. He searched “The Indian Patent Act” and found what he wanted to nail me with. But I said if he searched “Indian Patent Act” he would find several references to words strung exactly like that. That led to an argument, which ended in my resignation.

So coming to what I am waffling about, let me explode this myth about good writing. Nobody knows what good writing is. Or, to put it simply, good writing is too subjective a topic, a matter of interpretation. We all have our own concepts, colored by our own education, background, and upbringing. “Arree where going, men?” is okay to some and not palatable to others. One person’s good writing is another’s literary hara-kiri.

Even spelling and grammar. Americans spell with an “z” as in “specialized” while British spell with an “s” as in “specialised.” Indians have their own ways of expression like “time-to-time” and “preponed.”My chief sub-editor said there was something called Punjabi English, Marathi English, Malayalam English, Telugu English, Bengali English, and so on. And I agree. English is written differently by Malayalis like me than by Marathis like many of my friends.So are we agreed on one thing? That English is subjective to various influences and if you approach it with your puritanical rose-tinted glasses it will look downright odd and unintelligible. Hope we are.

So for some suggested solutions.

The solution

The solution? India has to evolve its own brand of English, which is tolerant and not dictatorial and puritanical in interpretation. If we take the colonial or Jesuit-convent-school type of English as pure English, Indians will lag behind in defining their own idiom and will not help Indian English evolve.Even Rushdie used words like “kill-ofy” in his writing. I think that is a good beginning from a Booker winner. We should follow his example and improvise.

Arundhati Roy, another beautiful (I mean this literally) improviser of the language uses words and idioms from Malayalam. She refers to “stick insect” and “Fountain in a Love in Tokyo.” Now “stick insect” is something we use in Malayalam English. Also nobody outside Kerala knows what a Love in Tokyo is.

Just to test Arundhati’s language I went to a general store in Kerala and asked for a “Love in Tokyo.”

Yes, believe me, I actually did this.

“Give this man a Love in Tokyo,” the owner of the shop shouted to his salesperson.

Please don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t buying love. Again, people, how misconceived can your interpretation get? I actually wrote “Again, people, how misconceived your interpretation can get?” That is another Indianism, putting the verb at the end of the sentence.

Instead of love, which I wouldn’t have objected to then, the salesperson fished inside several boxes in a dingy corner and came out with my “Love in Tokyo,” which is a hair clip that girls use to hold their hair in place. Ask a Malayali girl if you know one, she will concur.

Shobhaa De, another good improviser of language, is adept at Indianisms. If she finds somebody a “maha bore” I know exactly what she means, more power to her words.So when a group of Indians from diverse backgrounds get together and discuss what “Good English is,” I tend to choke. With laughter, I mean, because I have been through it enough times to make me puke with choking.

Be tolerant and tolerate interpretations is what I would like to say. If you follow British English stick to your “s” and “coloUr.” If you follow American English stick to your “z” and “color.” If you wish to sprinkle your work with a few qualified regional words, please do. But, not too much, please.Did I make my point? Again, it is subjective and subject to your interpretation.


Blogger Anil said...

You have my complete support on this....writing about what I've always believed in....I think it is high time we Indians shed off our colonial notions of pure 'English' and evolved our very own brand of English. It is time for a distinct Indian English on the lines of British and American English...if they have one why can't we have one? After all, I think more Indians speak English than the Americans and English combined if I'm not wrong!

03 August, 2005 15:38  
Blogger the still dancer said...

So, my dear John, your point is? Because if there is one, I completely missed it. I am not trying to be a bloody sod here, but I don't see anything which has not been said earlier, by many people in diverse fora. Moreover, you strike a self-contradictory note as well, for after your long harangue against purists who oppose the Indianisation of English, you say, "If you wish to sprinkle your work with a few qualified regional words, please do. But, not too much, please." You must have gathered by now, that I am one of those curmudgeonly purists. Yes, I am - because I honestly believe there is no such thing as "Indian" English, just as there isn't such a thing as "English" Telugu or "American" Bangla (the language is not 'Bengali.') Our patriotism chooses the unlikeliest of platforms to assert itself, and this is another instance of that.
What is so obstreperously glorified as "Indian" English is usually nothing but slovenly writing or speech. Although it is undeniably true that the language cannot and should not remain Victorian in its aspect, that is no excuse for a complete bastardisation of it.
When a writer like Rushdie uses vernacular words, it is as an effect, an artifice, a device, and not a universal idiom. Yes, occasional non-English elements are alright, but making a mongrel out of the language isn't. You can hardly come across a more "correct" writer than Rushdie, in fact.
Let me clarify, I do give in to Indian English in the course of my daily communication, simply because I'd not be understood otherwise . But I do not use phrases such as "today morning," or "give a call," or pronounce "absurd" as "abzurd." Even such "Indianisms" that I do indulge in (such as using "da" with my words,) I do so with the knowledge that they constitute an imperfect articulation of the language, to make it comprehensible to those whose grasp of it is imperfect. I do not claim them to by my own version of English.
I am sorry if I've been particularly vituperative. The English Language is something very dear to me, and I am rather touchy about it. Also, I began reading the article with a lot of interest, but found it dismally dissappointing, in as much as it is rather watery and does not say anything new, which is what is seems to promise in the beginning. My apologies.

03 August, 2005 18:48  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An interesting sidenote to all of you:-

I am not from Kerala (but from Andhra) but know exactly what the term "Love in Tokyo" means.

We were introduced to this term back in 1980-81 by an aunt visiting from the US when she had brought a whole lot of colourful love-in-tokyo's for us.

Don't assume Kerala is the mother of interesting terms or that interesting indianisms do not exist elsewhere. Besides a lot of presumed indianisms may not be indianisms at all. As in the case of the L-i-T.


04 August, 2005 13:00  
Blogger Max Babi said...

John, I plodded thru this article and realized there is no real point you are trying to make. What was it? Have I gone right past it? Or will you write a sequel and explain what is Indian English? This left all at sea.

04 August, 2005 15:19  
Blogger John said...

Kashyapeya, from the picture on your profile I thought you might be a 100 years old. But when I looked at your age I found 25. Is it true? Then some words of advice.

I am a purist in the sense that I would like to see pure English being written and am not for mauling the English language. That's the way I was trained in publishing. But, but, the evolution of language needs further experimentation which I felt, in my humble opinion, is being stifled. That was the point of my article.

Max, I have no point to make except that we should experiment more and be more open to interpretations. I may be wrong. I have been proved wrong on many occasions by many of my detractors.

The point I was making was we Indians write English with our own regional slant. So if we could evolve a common idiom that represents something uniquely Indian (meaning, understood by all Indians) then we can say we have really achieved something. Kash... what I meant in the end by saying "use regional words sparingly" meant using less of Malayalam oriented words and more of the Indian idiom I mentioned above.

I am more for the kind of English written by "living high" and "Ami Titash" on this blog. They have talent. I would appreciate more experimentation with form like they are doing.

And, Max, I would be troubling your senses a bit more by a follow-up to this. More power to your pen too.


04 August, 2005 17:33  
Blogger the still dancer said...

Apropos your assertion that you did not really have a point to make, all I've got to say is that if you've got nothing to say, then don't say anything. As I said in the comment, what really infuriated me was the fact that the article does not really say anything at all, it just meanders on and suddenly screeches to a stop- that, sir, is cheating your readers.
I shall ignore the snide remark about my looking a hundred years old , save to say that the those who have nothing to say against the utterance usually target the utterer.
I have linked to this post and also published it and my response to it on my blog, which has engendered quite a lively debate. You might want to read through that, especially what the marauder's map has to say about your article

04 August, 2005 19:55  
Blogger John said...

Cool down kash. It was just a misconception about your age I mean.

That hand looked like a beard to me and your words carried the wisdom of a 100 year old. Take it as a compliment, man.

"against the utterance usually target the utterer" come on guy you can do better than that.

Let's not fight over who's the better writer, because I don't claim to be one.


05 August, 2005 14:27  
Blogger Max Babi said...

A follow-up is great possibiolity John. Why don't you post these professorial notes at the caferati board, where a lot more newbies could benefit from your observatiuons, ideas and suggestions? This blog is chockful with people who have risen higher, and you are more likely to get flak than gratitude. Right?

06 August, 2005 08:06  
Blogger John said...


I had posted it on Caferati board first. I only received one comment. Strange, isn't it?


06 August, 2005 17:19  
Blogger Braveheart said...

Loads of opinions! But very few make any sense. Anyway, instead of trying to say something which most of you'd only try to shred to bits, I'll quote a genius - certainly, one of the greatest ever - Somerset Maugham.

1) In French, you can be grammatical with complete naturalness, but in English, not invariably.

-- This comes from a man who wrote in English all his life. Whether the author prefers the purity of the language or, the naturalness he must give to his characters, is 'his' choice.

2) One should write in the manner of one's period. The language is alive and constantly changing; to try to write like authors of distant past can only give rise to artificiality.

-- Think!

I see all the sense in your post John. The problem here is that people don't really like to read. Instead, they want to conclude. Hence, all this hue and cry about what the point is. You could think about taking a stand and being more conclusive, if you value the popular opinion that much.

-- Akshaya

07 August, 2005 19:51  
Blogger John said...

Hi Akshaya,

I see your point. I know I am a bit incoherent towards the end and the article didn't end well. Work pressure, you see. Okay, agreed, so, ahem, I am doing a follow up article as suggested by Max, hope you comment on that, too.

All the very best!


08 August, 2005 12:07  
Blogger John said...

Oh, by the way, none other than the Oxford English Dictionary is collaborating with BBC to find the origin of words that have crept into the english language.

For more details go to this page:

If they are hunting for our own familiar terms, isn't it our responsibility to feed them with Indianisms like "bindaas", "Fultoo", "Jhakkas" etc. etc.?


08 August, 2005 12:22  
Blogger Ozymandias said...

John, your essay reads well. Were I your English teacher, I'd give you 8.78965 on 10. I may not be able to call it a coherent argument, but it can be called quite a summary of what is going on. I might be led to agree with Kaashyapeya to some extent that some of what goes as 'Indian English' is sloth, pure and simple. Yet ancient and invariant laws dictate that languages must evolve or risk death.

If you can get a love in Tokyo in Kerala, just walk up to a big city bartender and demand sex on the beach. He'll pour you out an interesting cocktail. Without this and other such singular expressions, any form of speech will lack any notion whatsoever of flavour.

But the remainder of the exchange that has been going on, seems to miss whatever dubious point there might have been to begin with. I only perceive several flame wars, fuelled by incandescent egos and notions of stiff-upper-lip superiority. The good old Englishman will add un peu French or German towards futile demonstration of his classiness, while our coconuts here take schadenfreude in nitpicking grammatical variation, especially were it to display even the slightest tendency to cross the Atlantic away from her Her Royal Highness' pristine mode of utterance. I prevail upon myself to demand of the august debaters with a Kannada-ism: what circus are you doing here? Or perhaps use the shift button of my keyboard and use undeterred the keys on the top row, for example !@#$%^&^*()_+ !

08 August, 2005 21:06  
Blogger SPECKLED_BAND said...

Braveheart, I left this comment for you on Arka's page. Reproducing it here since you've posted your Maugham quotes here too.

"Braveheart, I share your obvious admiration of Maugham - "The Summing Up" is probably the finest 'writer's testament' ever. A small point though: his prescriptions (if such they were) were intended for practitioners of the 'English' language at the time. 'IE' was not even a gleam in anybody's eye - and the term itself would have earned either a snigger or a rap on the knuckles, depending. Maugham was merely advising contemporaries not to lapse into Tudor, Queen Anne or Victorian but stick to the idiom of the times that they were writing in. His nostrum in no way invalidates the argument for 'English' - and I suspect he wouldn't have had much patience with IE or, for that matter, much use for it."

08 August, 2005 21:36  

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