‘Good English, bad German’

 No, we’re not talking of the war comics and the war films of yore, we are talking about what I call the Subcontinental Syndrome – one could call it the Colonial Syndrome as well. It means the ability to spend half-a-lifetime or more in a non-English-speaking foreign country without learning, really learning, earnestly learning the language of that country – but relying on our baboo-to-brown-sahib Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi English to see us through and salvage our honour.

Take Germany. Like as not you will meet the one or the other of these long-haired, dreamy-eyed, willowy young men just arrived from Mumbai or Delhi to join his German lady love who – the young man – will evince Bertie Wooster’s mentality in all its parochialism and insularity: why are the Germans such asses, Jeeves, why can’t they speak English? The original Bertie was musing about Frenchmen, of course.

My Bertie simply couldn’t accept the fact that the Germans still insisted on speaking German in the Twenty-First Century – despite Windows & Word & Google & Facebook & YouTube & Twitter. Didn’t they lose the war? Yes, but they did not lose their language. And my Bertie will have to learn it if he intends to find (i) meaningful occupation and (ii) social acceptance in this German-speaking country.

And then my Bertie will complain about how pop songs sound so funny in German. ‘To your ears,’ I tell Bertie, to stop his giggling. ‘Look,’ I tell him, ‘would you like the Germans to laugh when they see our Ambassadors & Marutis simply because they’ve got their Audis & BMWs & Volkswagen & Mercedes?’ ‘Do they?’ Bertie was on the warpath at once. ‘No, they sell you their Audis etc., right down to Porsches,’ I told the young man – I think Audi had just held a road show with camels and elephants all the way from Rajasthan to New Delhi at around that time but I might be mistaken. You’ll have to ask Bertie.

And so it will go on. I will have to explain to this perfectly sane and well-educated young man from India that even Angshu Jain was addressing the shareholders of the Deutsche Bank in German towards the end. The Germans like English as we Indians like our chutneys and our pickles – to spice things up and to show that they are on the up and up, that they are knowledgeable, that they are cosmopolitan, that they’ve been holidaying in English-speaking countries ever since they were this high ironing out all misunderstandings with their Deutschmarks and their Euros.

Talk English to them, by all means – especially to your girlfriend, it’s how she fell in love with you, remember? – but don’t tax their patience – I tell Bertie. There will be a point beyond which they will stop listening and start smiling that hard, polite German smile of theirs which says, ‘I’ve got more patience than this fool’. Which will make you come out with your latest acquirement in German, how you can say Guten Tag and Auf Wiesbaden, that’s Good Day and See You, isn’t it? Then why are they all laughing? ‘It’s Auf Wiedersehen, Schatz’ – Treasure or Darling – his German girlfriend will tell Bertie, ‘Wiesbaden is the town we went to, remember?’

Bertie will have to remember for the next thirty years of his life – as I had to – that they speak German in Germany as they speak Chinese in China, Japanese in Japan, Polish in Poland and Finnish in – forget it. Bertie will not listen to a battle-scarred language veteran like me but join the language-impaired, language-disabled, language-challenged of the world and become a permanent member of our Good English, Bad German club.

Met Bertie’s five-year-old son the other day – perfect German, as was only to be expected, but what about his father tongue, which is supposed to be Hindi? The way the little angel spoke the rashtrabhasha, his own nani, that’s the grandmother, wouldn’t have recognised it, neither on the mother’s side nor on the father’s side.

Heads you win, tails I lose – as I was telling Bertie…

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