Book: ENTRY FROM BACKSIDE ONLY
Author: BINOO K. JOHN
A Bengali gentleman, Okhil Chandra Sen, wrote a letter to the Shainganj divisional office of the Indian Railways, West Bengal, in 1897, that is now a preserve of the National Railways Museum in the Capital. His ordeal on the railways moved the British enough to introduce toilets in all railway coaches. The letter urged:
I am arrive by passenger train at Abmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance the guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lota in one hand and dhoti in the next. When I am fall over and expose all my shockings to man and woman on platform. ... I am therefore pray your honour to make big fine on that guard for public sake otherwise I am making big report to papers.
Yours faithfull servant
Okhil Ch Sen
The traumatized gentleman wrote it long before Indians embraced the English language and invented the mongrel brand that is now called Indian English, the subject of journalist Binoo K. John’s book, Entry From Backside Only.
Entry From Backside Only: Penguin, 212 pages, Rs95
Indians and English—it is an association that is empowering as well as pitiful; in the author’s words, “a story of assimilation, distortion, creation and an osmotic give and take”. Even after Salman Rushdie and two Booker prizes, the equation remains, as John argues, more or less the same. It is an unusual book, primarily because non-academic writing on language is a rare pursuit in India.
It took me back to my college days in Kolkata, to a column that appeared in The Statesman. It used to list outrageous examples of Indian English. Sen’s letter was the high point of the column (a simple Google search revealed it is now a museum piece). It was a time when American English was the coolest import, when we wrote one kind of English in literature exam sheets and spoke a language that was diametrically, refreshingly, the opposite. The column in The Statesmen made us feel detached from what we then thought was history. Not so, as I later realized after travelling enough in the country.
John starts with the early days of the Raj when British officers found ways to squeeze English into vernacular languages, and the eagerness of Indians to take to the language. The rest of the book takes the reader through the way English has been shaped by English newpapers (including examples of cliches used by many newspapers till today) and the way Indian authors as experimental as G.V. Dasani or as flamboyant as Rushdie have shaped it.
Even if you are uninterested in the historical analysis of “Indlish” (some of it would bog down the most fervent linguist), buy it for the gems that he has scoured from his trips to nooks and corners of the country—including Goa and small towns of Tamil Nadu.
Sample these: “Carry out your own bag, avoid to use polythene bag” (an admonition outside a Mother Dairy booth in New Delhi); “Your sweet letter has enveloped me in the sweet fragrance of our love” (first line of a love letter in English, prescribed by the ubiquitous Rapidex English Speaking Manual); “It is for the use of the fashionable ladies and gentlemen of society who always look for a high class hair oil for bath and dressing” (an advertisement for Surama Oils).
There are many, many more.