Indian words in literary English

Indian words in literary English

Tracking Indian words in English has been a favourite topic with columnists in the Indian media. This decade has seen the publication of new editions of dictionaries, and each one has added new words from Indian sources, borrowed either in India or in England.

It is one thing to be interested in keeping count of new words, and quite another to see how Indian words have fared in literary works. In the early days of the British empire, Indian words were liberally used in communications or despatches sent to London by soldiers and civil servants who picked these up in India. Some words were even from neighbouring countries such as Malaya and Afghanistan, passing through India.

In the century following the founding of the East India Company, British writers introduced words from the East in their works. John Milton loved the East’s resonating proper nouns: “Of Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can,/Samarkand by Oxus, Temir’s throne/To Paquin of Sinaian Kings; and then/to Agra and Lahor of Great Moghul" (Paradise Lost).

Thomas Moore in his poem Lalla Rookh also uses lists of sonorous names: “Malaya’s nectared mangosteen/Prunes from Bokhara, and sweet nuts/From the far groves of Samarkand." Candahar is a pleasing combination of sounds, and corresponds to the Indian name, Gandhara. Poets were quick to pick up this word. Milton in Paradise Regained: “From Archosia, from Candaor east,/ And Margiana to the Hyrcanian cliffs/ of Caucasus, and dark Iberian dales."

Writers such as Rudyard Kipling and William Makepeace Thackeray had close links with India. In their poetry and fiction, we find a liberal use of Indian words. Indian readers are familiar with the Hindi names of animals that Mowgli in The Jungle Book is associated with. A glossary of Indian words used by Kipling lists nearly 400 of these.

Thackeray, born in Calcutta, had an easy command over Indian words. His novel, Vanity Fair, has characters who have returned after serving in India, and at one point, the use of two Indian words gives a major twist to the plot. When the main characters visit Vauxhall, Jos Sedley gets drunk, and screams: “Waiter, rack punch!" Jos has to be escorted home, and his proposed engagement with Becky Sharp is broken off. The novelist says: “That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history." Arrack is Indian for country liquor. Punch, a brew made from it, derives its name from Hindi paanch (five). Its five ingredients are arrack, hot water, lime, sugar and spice.

There are examples of poetry inspired by India in the British and American literature of the 19th century. Emerson, one of the “Boston Brahmins", wrote a poem named Brahma, a memorable rendering of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. Shelley turned from his early atheism to an understanding of what he called “Hindoostanish devotion". He was influenced by the poetry of Sir William Jones, who had written Hymn to Indra and Hymn to Surya. Shelley’s Indian Serenade, in which the love-lorn poet offers to die on the heart of his beloved, has these beautiful lines: “The wandering airs they faint/On the dark, the silent stream;/And the champak’s odours fail/Like sweet thoughts in a dream."

The most notable example of Indian words in English poetry comes from T.S. Eliot, Nobel laureate for literature (1948). His best known work, The Waste Land, depicts his disillusionment with the moral decay of Europe in his time. The poem ends with three Sanskrit words, “Datta, dayadhwam, damyata". These words are directly borrowed from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and contain the advice given by the Creator to his divine, human and demoniac children: “Give, be compassionate, control yourself." That is the way to arrest the decline in civilization and restore meaning to life. The last line of the poem reads “Shantih, shantih, shantih", thus ending the poem the way of the Upanishads.

VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English us age in his fortnightly column.

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