A Suitable Boy, since its trailer launch with its bright colours of red, yellow, and green, had slowly settled in our hearts as the next Netflix release we were longing to watch. When we eased into a cup of chamomile tea that Sunday afternoon (unfortunately, a couple of days after the release), we found ourselves in the enchanting world only Mira is capable of creating.
The slow ghazals and the colours that mean more to us as Indians than the colour itself—whether it is the colours of Holi, the green-coloured tapestry of Saeeda Bai’s house or the saffron simmer of the bhakts or the black clouds of smoke rising into the sky, painted a picture of India from so long ago quite beautifully. Something like yearning rose in our chest for a period most of us have only read about.
Since the trailer release, there was a lot of heat against the language in the series. So many found it revolting that the primary language of A Suitable Boy was English. It was astounding to find that despite the perfection on the screen, the series rested on a meagre 6.4 IMDB rating. Although it is available in Hindi as well now, the series seems to convey a lot more meaning in English.
English in A Suitable Boy acts as a semiotic where it is a symbol of the social status and economic background of each character. The accent and language of the characters also speak volumes about their idiosyncrasies and identity.
The setting of the series takes place in India immediately after partition. The main characters of the movie—the Chatterjis, the Kapoors, the Mehras, and the Khans—all belong to upper class.
Meenakshi (Arun Mehra’s wife) “whose father and grandfather have been high court judges” obviously comes from a background where English is more prevalent and preferred. Of course, English was the language of the privileged (isn’t it still?). Both Meenakshi and her brother Amit are hence very comfortable in the language, English was probably even their first language.
English is like dazzling music, flowing, varying in pitch in the tongue of the deceiving and cunning Meenakshi. Amit’s accent has a ring of gusto that can only be explained as his fondness for the language, which makes sense as he is a poet.
The same goes for the Kapoors where position and privilege have naturally drifted them to English. Isn’t Maan’s (the proverbial son’s) English more foreign than the others in his family? Although Maan can speak Urdu, he can neither read nor write it. He gives the implication of an outsider—ignorant and uncaring about his motherland. Mahesh Kapoor’s (Maan’s father) and Pran’s (Maan’s brother) English is simple and straight forward, just as they are.
When Arun Mehra’s whole idea of status and standard revolves around English, it is only deliberate that his English is more ‘British’ than anyone else’s in the story. “English is very far from being his first language,” he tells Lata about Haresh, the shoemaker, (and uses it as one of the main reasons why Haresh is deemed an ‘unsuitable’ match). Although Arun has never even been to London, he roots for the English culture and looks down on the Indian.
When it comes to the wealthy Khans, while the Nawab’s English is fairly Indian, his well educated (probably abroad) son, Firoz’s is anything but sophisticated.
There is also the magnificent Saeeda Bai who tells Maan, “You’re unfamiliar with the language of our great poets” and insists Maan learn the same. She also tells him that Urdu is her language; “the language of my songs, the language of my soul”. We also see her usually conversing in Urdu with Maan. She is determined that her daughter Tasneem also learn Urdu. Her inclination towards Urdu is so profound that her ghazals can rekindle the dormant traditional fervour in any person.
Saeeda Bai is steered towards English by the course of history but her homeland remains to be Urdu. When Bibbo (who waits on Saeeda) mentions how Saeeda got the gift of English from the aristocrats she was ‘introduced’ to, she sighs and says heavily, “Yeah. Quite a gift.” It is suggested that to Saeeda alone, English is anything but a gift.
English is also used to draw the differences between Rasheed (Tasneem’s Urdu tutor) and his father. Rasheed describes his father as, “Zamindars! They do nothing but make their living from other people’s misery. And they try to force their sons into the same ugly mould as themselves. And if their sons want to do anything else, then they make life miserable for them too.” Rasheed is not his father. For one thing, he has spurned the inheritance of the ‘ugly mould’ from his father and to his father’s disdain is in awe of Mahesh Kapoor who is trying to pass the Zamindari Bill. For a second thing, unlike his father, he is educated and speaks English.
This representation of language as a semiotic also helps us delve deep into the characters and their social and economic background. While amongst people of the same class these families converse in English, notice how with the lower class the language they use is Indian.
When Maan and Firoz are surrounded by the Hindu mob ready to mutilate Firoz for being a Muslim, Maan screams at them to back off in Hindi.
Maan and Rasheed talk to the poor farmers in Rasheed’s remote village in Urdu. Neither the tormenting landowner nor the poverty-stricken farmers speak English. The English that the suffering farmers do not know speak loudly about the basic privileges that they do not have. It also symbolises the lack of civility in a place far away from the English-speaking cities.
Take heed of how the lingual context has been incorporated with precision in the series. As far back as the early 19th century, Urdu had emerged as a language among the Muslims to create a definite Islamic identity. The Muslims in the series - Saeeda Bai, the Khans, Rasheed’s father, the farmers of the village speak Urdu. On the contrary, the Hindus—the Kapoors, Haresh, Kalpana, etc, speak Hindi. During that time in history, Hindi had become the definitive language of the Hindus. After the partition, Urdu became the official language of Pakistan, while Hindi became India’s.
Waris, the Nawab’s “man here” has a localized English, the accent of his mother tongue seeping into his English. This is very evident, especially when he speaks to Maan, whose “whovvuayu” can only be a demarcation of their vertically and geographically distant backgrounds.
Remember how Haresh after talking to Lata and her mother in English, turns to a worker at the shoe factory and says, “Janatham Ji, Namaskar, Aapki beti Kaisi hai?”
Coming to think of Haresh, the pragmatic shoemaker’s accent can only be described as, as tip-top as his shoes. The paan-chewing “unsuitable” Haresh comes from an ‘unsuitable’ society. He had been in the less pompous parts of London where he attended the Northampton College of Technology (much to the contempt of the Chatterjis). His lack of pomp and steadfastness to his morality reflects on his English that is plain and uninventive.
English in the tongue of several of the characters, Lata, Rupa (Lata’s mother) and Kabir Durrani (one of Lata’s love interests), for instance, seem forced. Well, as forced as necessary, finding themselves at a time in history where the culture, art, and language of the colonizer, the oppressor equated to respect, admiration and civility.
Note the various other instances in which the European substitutes the Indian. Pran is but an English professor. Amit is an English poet. The Dance that the Chatterjis indulge in is Tango, the music is opera (although Kuku’s fiance does endeavour to sing a Bengali song—in the opera style), Kuku’s instrument is the piano and the game is cricket. The luncheon that Haresh invites them to is through and through English - complete with wine, knives, spoons and forks—one that is designed to impress and is of the ‘highest standard’.
We also see the Chatterjis cook Bengali food for Arun’s boss and his wife, but from the subsequent dialogue, it is apparent that Coxes had wanted to try a “new” thing.
The drinks are always Scotch whisky or Champagne. The Literature that Lata quotes occasionally is also English, (except for the James Joyce in her dissertation which was rejected precisely for the reason that James Joyce is Irish), but this can be because she is more familiar with English Literature as she is a student of the subject. (Well, exactly the point.) In the second episode, there is also a scene where the senior women sit around a table and play cards, which used to be a common pastime among Western women.
Indeed, sometimes the dialogues sound as though they have been taken out of a textbook, but that had been the intention in the first place. Mira had said in an interview that in A Suitable Boy, it is “a polished, convent school English,” as it was how they spoke English in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s in the region.