108 varieties


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WHY a hundred and eight? Because it is a large number, and a classical one, and because the other alternatives, fifty seven and infinity, the usual symbols of variety, are both inappropriate, for different reasons. Fifty seven, with its reference to Heinz advertisements, is too western, and the number of Indians is not yet, thank goodness, infinity. The first point to be made, simply, is that there are a large number of varieties of Indian English, even though, to the English themselves (and other foreigners), all Indians sound alike; whether it is the Nawab of Pataudi in ‘Bodyline’1 or Professor Godbole in ‘A Passage to India’, they all imitate Peter Sellers imitating an Indian.

It is obvious why there are so many varieties of Indian English and that is the varieties of Indians themselves. Take education for instance. Indians educated at Oxford speak and write English very differently from the alumni of Banaras and Agra, and Doon School boys from the products of municipal schools (the Doon School boys probably use ‘yaar’ more frequently). The subdivisions can be made finer: the stamp of Cambridge (Eng.) differs from that of Cambridge (Mass.), and far larger numbers of Indians now study in America.

These differences may be reflected in the English of upper class occupations – IFS trainees are still sent mainly to England, while Indian universities are full of American graduates. Hence, one often hears in university seminars those two American academic cliches – ‘That is a hard act to follow’ and ‘That was the good news, now for the bad news.’ Presumably business correspondence too is full of American cliches, and much worse than academic cliches at that, but fortunately I do not have to read it.



Education, occupation, income, mother tongue, class (but not caste?) – these and many others account for the varieties of Indian English but I will comment mainly on the mother tongue. Moreover, I will confine myself to a few languages or language groups, and will base my remarks on, to use that economists’ excuse for wild generalisation, casual empiricism.

It is hardly worth stating that the rhetoric of Indian English, rooted as it generally is in Sanskrit or Persian, is not Anglo-Saxon: the differences within the species are more interesting. Is my impression correct that Bengali English and Tamil English are more elaborate and varied in their rhetoric, and more grammatical than other forms of Indian English, and that these differences are (or were) more marked the lower one travelled down the social scale? The longer Indians are educated abroad, the less their regional origins count, and some Indian institutions, too, such as the Doon School and St. Stephen’s College, are powerful homogenizers. But in Bengal and Tamil Nadu, people who may never have travelled outside their districts, reveal a knowledge of English life and literature which the smartest products of Delhi University will not attain however often they go abroad (the early Nirad Chaudhuri is an extreme example: he is indeed sui generis – but here are a few other examples).

In 1946 I went to the Reserve Bank office in Madras to get an exchange permit for study abroad. The official I saw was not very senior, and he asked me where I was going.

‘Newnham College, Cambridge.’

‘Your know what they say about Newnham women?’


‘There is Abishag the Shulamite and Shabby Hag the Newnhamite.’

A Maharashtrian friend looking into district records in a small town in Bengal revealed to the clerk at the archives that he was studying at Oxford. ‘Oh, then you will have heard of Mr X, our former Collector. He was the fine flower of Eton and Balliol.’



The Bard was apparently particularly popular in Bengal and the South. Elderly relatives of mine, who had never been abroad, could recite Shakespeare by the hour. And here is Desani’s Mr. Bannerji; ‘Excuse me, despite, as your well-wisher, I have chosen a married woman, I am aware, he has said, Oh, hell! To choose love by another’s eye. But excuse me, he has also said, Hamlet speaking, Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’2 (Incidentally, ‘excuse me’, to express apologetic dissent, is commonly used in many parts of India, and indeed by other foreign English speakers too.3

Again, can one imagine the following funeral oration for a professional bodybuilder in the North: ‘With his bulging biceps and tremendous triceps he was unparalleled on the parallel bars?’4



That, of course, was meant to rouse tears, not laughter. But all English speaking Indians make jokes about Indian English. One common element in our oral humour is that every Indian language group finds the English pronunciation of every other group irresistably funny – the Punjabi who goes to the ‘satation’ to meet a ‘luyyer’ and the Bengali who hears the ‘bhard’ ‘shing’ unite in roaring with laughter at yevery Tamil. This of course annoys or surprises the Tamil who, like all the others, finds his English accent natural, indeed correct.

When I told a Tamil that a Malayali friend had mocked the Tamil English accent he could not believe it. ‘That is not possible,’ he said in the ripest of accents, ‘Our pronunciation is perfect though our intonation may be a bit peculiar.’ And all Indians except the England-returned find an upper class English accent odd – but that amuses other Englishmen too. And here too there are regional differences. At one end there is the Sardarji joke: ‘Are you Milkha Singh?’ ‘No, I am relaxing.’ At the other, there is the man whom my Bengali friends swear is not wholly apocryphal, who gets his proverbs hauntingly wrong. ‘All roads to Rome were not built in a day.’

These regional differences are signs that English was better taught and for a longer period in Bengal and the South than in the North. But language chauvinism has probably swept most of these differences away. All Indians will be equally ignorant of English literature, so that regional differences will mainly reflect the differences in structure and style of the mother tongues. Maharashtrian English will continue to be drier than Bengali English; Tamils will be alliterative when they want to make a flourish, and terse otherwise. Kamaraj is the paradigm with his ‘Parkalam’ in Tamil, but Tamil English examples abound. Only tepid goodwill is conveyed by the English exchange:

‘How do you do?’

‘How do you do?’

But Tamils convey more goodwill, as well as information, in their exchange.

‘How are you I hope?’

‘Oh yes.’

Again, when two Tamils meet in the interval of a concert, all they need to say is:


‘Simply.’ (Tamil-English for ‘absolutely’).



Apart from language groups there are many other forms of Indian English; (a very useful principle of sub-division is according to occupation). One main category is official Indenglish – indeed it deserves an article to itself if not several volumes of which one should trace its development from the first East India Company minute. Why is it that all communications from juniors to seniors must be in the third person, ‘Secretary may please see?’ Does this reflect eighteenth century English or present day Indian notions of respect?

There is a marvellous volume to be written on the evolution of GOI English – babu English is not the right term, partly because it is not restricted to clerks. Some changes can be easily dated. Certain locutions are clearly post-1947, such as, ‘This file may be sent to the concerned ministry.’ And the rude Anglo-Saxon never wrote, ‘For Secretary’s kind perusal, please.’ Perhaps development came to be invariably linked with ‘stresses and strains’ after 1951, as in ‘The five-year delay is due to the stresses and strains of development.’ But one cannot be sure of this – the historian is often surprised to find in past official records a phrase he had thought peculiarly modern.



On the other hand, some sentences can be firmly dated. It is only in the era of foreign aid that every Finance Minister who went on a begging expedition reminded an increasingly bored western audience that no man is an island. (As a very junior government official in the Finance Ministry I tried in vain to introduce another quotation, of far greater domestic relevance – Sam Weller’s, ‘But it’s over and done with, and that’s one consolation as they sez in Turkey when they cut the wrong man’s head off.’ (I quote from memory).

The English of PAs is a special sub-class, and being almost entirely oral it is important to record. ‘May I know your good name, please’ appears to be particularly North Indian, the extra polite ask one for one’s ‘good number’. (A charming variant is the Delhi child’s, ‘When is your happy birthday?’). My favourite PAism is the following. I had rung up a close and very proper friend in the Finance Ministry; his PA, recognising my voice, said doubtfully. ‘He is on the sofa with a foreigner, madam. Should I disturb him?’

Dance programmes have a special jargon of their own, and an excruciatingly limited one. By the time one has been to one’s sixth Bharata Natyam performance one should be able to recite by heart the descriptions of the alarippu and tillana; the tillana, we are everlastingly informed is a sequence of intricate pure dance steps where the dancer displays her dazzling virtuosity. But there is the occasional variation – baffled by the difficulties of translation. One programme I treasure, said the dancer would describe ‘the sweet chhed-chhad of Lord Krishna.’

Other occupations too have their peculiar forms. It is obvious that lawyers and doctors and dentists will each have a special jargon, much of it doubtless international. But the ‘English’ of some occupations is peculiarly Indian – where else do motor mechanics charge you for ‘denting’ your car (i.e., removing the dents)?



Again, Indian economists never refer to ‘the poor’, but only to ‘those below the poverty line’, which they seem to feel is more scientific. Planners too are made uneasy by the poor – ‘the weaker sections’ are less disturbing. This repellent phrase occurs in the Constitution too, perhaps in the unconscious realisation that while we may abolish poverty, the weaker sections will always be with us.

Indian sociologists have eagerly adopted the jargon of the West – everything is ‘mediated’ if it is not ‘encompassed’. Instead of visiting the 10,000th village to tell us for the umpteenth time that villages have factions (so unlike departments of sociology), why do they not analyse the language of marriage advertisements,5 or New Year cards, or wedding invitations or, indeed, even visiting cards? Consider the poignancy of one Nizamuddin landlord’s description of himself – ‘ex-aristocrat’. Indian English may bring to the surface aspects of our social psychology hidden in Indian languages.

But it is time to bring this rambling essay to an end or it may have to be retitled ‘The 1008 varieties of Indian English.’


* Reproduced from ‘Indian English’, Seminar 321, May 1986.



1. A television serial produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where the Nawab of Pataudi is played by an Indian. I do not know if he genuinely does speak like Peter Sellers or whether he was directed to do so; if the former, he should not have been chosen for the part.

2. G.V. Desani, All About H. Hatterr, King Penguin, p. 69. I have not cited any other novelists, partly out of laziness, but more because very few even of the Indians seem to be sensitive to regional and other nuances.

3. Eg., the Italians in Compton Mackenzie’s novel on Capri, Extraordinary Women.

4. The peroration I must confess, is not Tamil, but, according to Dr. R.M. Honavar, was delivered in Bangalore.

5. Nandini Mehta once wrote an excellent piece on this subject.