Though the English left India 70 years ago, their language and its symbolization as superior and powerful has continued. It is a rare parent who does not beam with joy when his child speaks some English. Parents make sure they scrape their hard earned money to put their child through an English medium (which means elite in other words) school. Schools charge their students a fine if they are caught speaking their mother tongue on campus. Even parents of special children who come to my consultation room, coax their kids to “Say” in English, the answer to any question that I ask in kannada.
A knowledge of English is seen somewhat as a sign of superiority, a matter of pride and a way out of future poverty. Phew! So much burden for one language to carry! And I am sure that if English were a person, she would have crumbled under this intense pressure (which is probably more than what P.V.Sindhu faced on the eve of her final match at Rio) of millions of Indian parents for long long years. She would have probably scooted the country far before the British did. But she did not. And here we are –grappling with realities.
I love the fact that we live in a country with so many languages. Each language with its own flavor and essence. English, I love –because I studied in it for most part and knowing it, helped me expand my horizons. Kannada because it is the language of my land. I enjoy the strangeness of my mother tongue Konkani. I love the way Tamil and Marathi sound. Hindi seems to me, a way to understand tv, my North Indian patients and our prime minister’s ‘Man ki baat’! Though I worry about landing with a twisted tongue, I did learn quite a few sentences of Malayalam! I love the fact that we are a language potpourri. English words which have been Indianised and used ever so casually with an air of ownership. My daughter and son believe that “bussu”, “caru”, “traffic jamu” “hotelu” are essentially kannada!
So, it is not that I have anything against the language. I am not a language fanatic nor a grammar nazi. Nor am I a snob who believes that people who speak english incorrectly are imbeciles. I understand that it comes from learning with limited means and lack of practice. But I believe in people knowing their limitations. That they are fluent in a few languages and have to treat the others with caution. Or if they did want to use it conversationally, it would happen with hard work rather than over confidence.
Well, that does not seem to be the case with our poor English. Apart from being put on the podium as a status symbol, she is also tortured continuously and most times hilariously. A lot of it which I get to see in my hospital.
Starting from my internship. Along with my co intern, I had spent the night filling in patient information into files, when the hospital attendant announced that the head nurse wanted the “cassettes”. We looked back blank. “Which cassettes?”. “The ones you are filling.” Realization dawned. He meant the “case sheets”.
Or when the duty nurse sent me a note from the far flung recesses of the TB ward. The note read “Doctor, the patient in ward 9 has not passed urine or stools since two days. Please come and pass it”.
When in my residency, we were posted in a Government hospital whose cassette, sorry case sheet carried a mandatory question of finding out why the patient had landed in that particular hospital for treatment. Most patients would reply that they had come over for free “statement”-meaning “treatment”. “Please give my son good statement”, they would ask of us. And after the free statement was given, they would profusely say “TANK you” and leave us sufficiently tanked in their wake!
Once I started my practice, I realized the all encompassing power of the word “aunty”. There was once this eighty year old man who called me ‘aunty’ at the end of Each. And. Every. Sentence. Which was promptly followed up by his obedient wife, who was almost seventy and had only one single tobacco stained tooth in her mouth. The auntying got so severe that I caught myself unconsciously smoothing my hair to cover my grey strands for the next one hour!
The best was yet to come. There was once a concerned husband who hovered around after I finished counselling his wife. He then came over and whispered conspirationally, “Madam, can my wife try property?”.
I thought that he wanted to be sure that his depressed wife was lucid enough to make decisions about her finances and real estate.”Sure, no harm”, I replied. “She is smart enough to handle and plan her finances”.
He did not seem convinced. “But property?”, he insisted.
Now, this instantly made me suspicious. I wondered whether he was planning to cheat her and do away with her money.
“Why exactly are you asking me this?”, I queried.
He must have caught my tone of irritation.”Madam, I care about my wife and her health. We wanted to be sure to have a gap of three years between our kids”.
Now, I was confused. Family planning and real estate. No bells rang. I finally asked him to explain what exactly he meant.
He looked at me rather pityingly, at my lack of common medical knowledge. “Madam, you know that thing they use nowadays to prevent pregnancy-they insert it into the uterus- it is called property. Never mind. I will ask my wife’s gynecologist about it”
Turns out he meant “copper T”.
I rest my case.