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Bhaiyo Aur Behno, Happy English Day!



Bhaiyo Aur Behno, Happy English Day!

An occasion to celebrate the earliest English books written by Indians, challenging the very Englishness of English

True that all these special days can get confusing, especially when the first chunks of info you find on the subject tell nothing of the source and everything about the creator of the event.

April 23 is English Language Day. It is also World Book and Copyright Day. Why? Maybe because the UN thought it should designate one day to celebrate this omnipresent language, or maybe to highlight the multiplicity of this single language that was actually born out of a peasant community on the Norman coast of Europe. (Ask Bill Bryson!)

The date, as you may guess, is an allusion to Shakespeare’s birthday. Interestingly, the World Book and Copyright Day’s calendar presence on the same day is for altogether different reasons. It can be traced back to Spain, where Cervantes’ death anniversary falls on April 23. At least it’s all in the literary realm so we needn’t fret.

The British may claim to own English, but the rest of the world has reached the unanimous conclusion that it is indeed a funny language. It is also irrational, which says something about the number of words it has stolen from other languages and the lack of logical reasoning applied to its grammatical makeup. We take it for granted today, but there are enough people who find it so exasperating that they altogether avoid visiting English speaking countries! Here’s a classic example of its awfulness.

Closer home, we can credit some of our greatest writers to this absurd colonial leftover that has become a status symbol in rural India. Imagine a world without RK Narayan or Rushdie and you get what I’m saying. The work produced by Indian authors in English is generally clubbed together as ‘Indo-Anglian Literature’, although in essence there is practically nothing in common amongst its writers except their Indian origins.

What makes it curious instead, is what some of them have done to English. The first Indian to publish a book in English, back in 1794, was a certain Sake Dean Mahomed. Obviously a Bong, he also held the dubious distinction of introducing the west to something called ‘shampooing’ that he explained as ‘Indian vapour massage bath’ (!). It was a huge success. Meanwhile the book was accused of mild plagiarism.

We are used to Hinglish now. In our daily slang are incorporated hundreds of English words that we have altered, distorted and moulded to fit India. But while it is tempting to pitch Rushdie and others of his ilk as the ultimate Indo-Anglian innovators, there are those who attempted the same changes – going beyond Englishness – much before him, often without the same motivations, sometimes unintentionally, and achieving better results.

Pilgrims Publishing based out of Varanasi and Kathmandu, Gulshan Books based out of Srinagar and several other independent publishers continue to bring out literature that fails to catch bigwigs’ attention but holds some real gems of English language distortions.

To read one of the most eccentric books ever written by an Indian in English – one that was in fact very much intentional – get a copy of the now rare All About H. Hatterr. Independent India was all of one year old when G.V. Desani, a Kenya-born Indian journalist broadcasting for BBC and practising Buddhism, took English and turned it on its head, “staining your goodly, godly tongue” forever.

This English Language Day, curl up with Hidustanwallah Hatter and I promise you’d come out wondering what the big deal about postcolonial celebs like Rushdie and Ghosh is. This dude did it first!

Image Credit: Nikhil Mudaliar




Mineli Goswami is a 24-year-old Assamese-East Indian, which usually translates into pretty good weekend feasts. When she’s not at her desk struggling with poetry – more often than she’d like – she’s seen wasting time on an assortment of things such as lugging an antique SLR, breaking nails climbing boulders, and chasing turtles. She’s graduated in history and has an unofficial PhD in Bandra-style jiving.

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