‘Kindly adjust’ to our English

I have long immodestly considered myself the inventor of the term 'prepone'. I came up with it at St Stephen’s in 1972, used it extensively in conversation and employed it in an article in JS magazine soon after. Prepone, as a back-construction from postpone, seemed so much simpler, to a teenage collegian, than saying, “could you move that appointment earlier?” or “I would like to advance that deadline”. Over the years, I was gratified to see how extensively its use had spread in India. Now, in an era where too many claim credit for other’s work, I feel it may be time to clarify the word’s origins. Is anyone aware of an earlier usage?

I ask because the persistence and survival of what is called 'Indian English' (often with a sneer, as if to differentiate it from the Queen’s “propah” English) deserves to be taken seriously. Our English is a vigorous language, which draws strength from local roots. If Americans can say 'fall' for autumn and 'gotten' for 'have got', though both are archaisms in England itself, why can’t Indians say 'furlong', 'fortnight' and 'do the needful', even if these have fallen out of use centuries ago in London? So many words in Indian English have stood up to the only test that matters—the test of time and usage. If enough people find a word or phrase useful, it is, to my mind, legitimate.

Indian English is a living, practical language, used by millions every day. Many phrases we take for granted in ordinary conversation are actually quite unusual abroad—calling elders 'auntie' or 'uncle', for instance, or using 'non-veg' to convey a willingness to eat meat. That doesn’t make them wrong, or even quaint. It just makes them Indian.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Some Indian English was created by our media—'airdash' (the chief minister airdashed to Delhi) and 'history sheeter' (“the police explained that habitual criminal X was a history sheeter”, i.e. he had a long criminal record). Some, like my 'prepone', came from school and college campuses: 'mugging' (cramming hard for an exam, with much rote learning involved) means two very different things abroad (a criminal assault by a robber, or an elaborate and often comically exaggerated expression). When an Indian student tells a foreigner he was “mugging for an exam”, bewilderment is guaranteed.

Some Indian Englishisms are merely translated from an Indian language: “what is your good name?” is the classic, since all Bengalis have a daak naam that they are called by, and a bhalo naam (or good name) for the record. But “what is your good name?” is still the most polite form, in any version of the English language, for finding out the identity of your interlocutor.

Some Indianisms are creative uses of an ordinary English word or phrase to reflect a particularly Indian sensibility, such as “kindly adjust”, said apologetically by the seventh person squeezing onto a bench meant for four. Our matrimonial ads have created their own cultural tropes— 'wheatish complexion', of course, and better still, 'traditional with modern outlook'.

But acknowledging the legitimacy of Indian English and many of its formulations doesn’t mean that “anything goes”. Some things are simply wrong. The Indian habit of saying “I will return back” is an unnecessary redundancy: if you return, you are coming back. The desi practice of using 'till' to mean 'as long as' is incorrect English; it is wrong to say “I will miss you till you are away” when you really mean is “I will miss you till you come back”! The Indian official doesn’t “waive off” a fine, he just waives it, though he could wave you off if you thank him too profusely. And, 'back side' for 'rear' causes much unwitting hilarity, as in signs proclaiming, “entry through back side only”. These can’t be justified under the rubric of Indian English. They are just bad English.

But for the rest, we have nothing to apologise about: we should defiantly celebrate their use as integral parts of our Indian English vocabulary. After all, “we are like that only”. And if you don’t like it, kindly adjust.