A nauthor

Who am I writing for? The question was put to me years ago by a very good friend of mine who lives in London and amuses himself in his spare time by acting as a reader for various publishing houses as well as for aspiring authors – mainly by way of telling them, ‘This won’t work’. Despite the fact that this is not his main occupation or preocupation, he wet-nursed an international bestseller to fame in the nineties.

In other words, his judgement is as acute as it is astute and his chance remarks have always had this annoying habit of following me around like the hound of heaven and howling like a banshee in my dreams. Such as that million dollar question: ‘Who do you write for?’ It was on the phone, and he might well have said ‘whom’, which will roughly indicate just how long ago this conv. must have taken place. I’d written three novels by then and intrepid as my friend is, he had been kind enough to look through at least two of them. Decency demands that his comments remain as unpublished as the novels in question.

My friend was a bit doubtful about my English too. You see, my English is like Oberon’s Indian fairy-child deserted in the ur-forests of Germania and raised by wolves which have strayed across the border from Poland or the Czech Republic. This has resulted in my English fermenting into a very special kind of brew which few can imbibe and even fewer recognise as one of the more exotic flavours of their beloved lingua franca. Further, my English being practically self-taught, there are large gaps in it, call them blind spots. To give you but one example: I have a penchant for such tantalising words as ‘demotic’ which crop up in connection with Eco’s The Name of the Rose, for example. I check the meaning every time and conveniently forget it after use, so that I have to google the damn thing all over again the next time I’m thinking of using it. Demotic, for instance: does that refer to simplified ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs or to a form of Modern Greek? And it’s not me who’s doing the bullshitting, believe me.

Okay, so it’s Google and not the O.E.D., is it, even for somebody like me who ‘belongs to an older semester’ (which is the polite German way of putting it)? The answer is yes – I confess shamefacedly. These days, one outsources one’s memory to Google/Wikipedia and most people are unperturbed by the fact that their phones are probably smarter than them. It’s a comfortable situation, really: your head is in a Cloud, the rest of you walking the earth like a zombie.

I have not always been this modern, remember. There were the times when everybody else was running around with an iPhone and I was telling them that I was the only person carrying a uPhone – what’s that? They wanted to know. It means that I’m not going to call you, you’d better call me. Not I phone but you phone, that’s uPhone, in pidgin, I told them. You know the problem with a uPhone? It never rings.

And now I’m going to give away a business idea which will probably be snapped up by Apple: I’ve been thinking of a smartphone which will be an electric shaver as well so that you can switch over to the shave function when the conversation gets boring. The phone will be as loud as it will be sensitive so that the ladies can use it without interrupting either their chat or the depilation.

Thank God all that is behind me now and this is just a blog – I love that ‘just a blog’ demurral – so my reply will be ‘Dunno!’ every time you ask who I am writing for. The Germans call it Narrenfreiheit, fool’s liberty, meaning of course the Fool or the court jester of medieval times, like the one in Shakespeare who used to call King Lear ‘nuncle’.

Now there’s a funny word. I’d always taken it to be Shakespeare’s, until I googled it and discovered that it’s only the archaic or dialectal form of ‘uncle’, risen apparently through the rebracketing of phrases such as ‘an uncle’, ‘mine uncle’, ‘thine uncle’ and so on. Dunno about my phone, but Google is certainly smarter than me, at times.

Though I still like to think that nuncle is the negation of uncle, it’s like fooling Uncle, nuncling him, nuncling the nuncle, if you know what I mean. You don’t? Let’s go back to the Wiktionary: nuncling means to cheat or to deceive. Perhaps also to deride?

Well, if Lear can be a nuncle, I can be a nauthor too. Yes, that’s what I’ll be, that’s what I’d like to call myself, rebracketed and transposed, not an author, but a nauthor. Any objections?

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The pity of it, Iago, the poetry of it

That’s what Othello should have said, like the rest of us, by which I mean Shakespeare’s readers & audiences four-hundred-and-thirteen years later. What Othello said was ‘but yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!’

Othello, Act IV, Scene I. Othello is still impressed by Desdemona’s needlework – ‘so delicate with her needle’ – and moved by her singing – ‘will sing the savageness out of a bear’; he admires her ‘high and plenteous wit and invention’. He has previously called her ‘A fine woman! A fair woman! A sweet woman!’ Has proclaimed that ‘the world hath not a sweeter creature’, one ‘fit to lie by an emperor’s side’. And yet he now intends to ‘chop her into messes’ for cuckolding him. Sound familiar? The fact that Othello the Moor strangles Desdemona can be seen as a crime passionnel as well as an honour killing. Isn’t that very much like our twentieth century or the not unsimilar one that followed?

What is not 20th or 21st c. in that scene is precisely Othello’s regret: the pity of it, Iago. If Othello had had just a bit more of Hamlet’s equivocation, he might have killed himself instead of killing Desdemona. Let’s fantasize. What if Dreamworks had hired Shakespeare to make a film of the ‘American Beauty’ sort out of Othello? Wow, Desdemona in rose petals, Othello smoking marijuana. They’d have asked old Will to take a good look at Sam Mendes’ film, which would certainly have been to Will’s taste, I’m sure. ‘There’s enough there for ten plays,’ Will would have said.

And then they’d have asked him about the scene he liked best. ‘The plastic bag scene,’ Will would have said: ‘Give you the Swan theatre and the apron stage for that.’ Why? Ricky holds his camcorder in any direction on any subject and out comes the dance of the plastic bag; what’s so special about that? It’s the first half-metaphor Will has seen in a Hollywood film which is in effect a full metaphor – Will says. What’s a half-metaphor? ‘That’s what they’re calling an old trick of mine these days,’ Will says. ‘I’m sure you had to do Macbeth’s soliloquy about to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow in your secondary, didn’t you? Remember what I wrote? All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Now, how do tomorrows turn into yesterdays? By dying, they die. Death, dusty death – dust to dust returns. The funeral procession: do not all our days point the way to the inevitable end, are they not the mourners, the candle-bearers to our own mortality? I’m not here to give you an online correspondence course on half-metaphors – let me just remind you of what that Francis Thompson fellow phrased so surprisingly well some time back’ (actually a century & more). ‘Thompson wrote: “Turn but a stone, and start a wing!” Now, what do you start when you turn a stone? A bird? An angel? What you start is a half-metaphor.’

‘The true image, the poetic image, is like that,’ Will was being thoughtful now. ‘You have to start it, startle it, and it takes to wing. I don’t know how Sam Mendes did it, but he must have chanced upon that plastic bag blowing this way and that in the wind and the leaves following it around as if playing follow the leader. The rest is just asphalt and the brick wall, as bare as the apron stage. The dance of the plastic bag is the most beautiful thing he ever found, Ricky says. Also the most terrible, if he only knew, and as I have been finding out. That plastic bag represents all that is wrong with America, all that is wrong with your world, with your time. Your civilisation is drowning in it. It’s landing in the ocean where fish and dolphins and sharks mistake it for jellyfish and eat it and choke and die. And it’s an empty plastic bag. Four hundred and thirteen years later, you’ll find that plastic bag is all that has remained of American Beauty. The half-metaphor will have become a full metaphor by then.’

It was getting a bit heavy, so I had to ask something to change the topic. How did he manage to modernise his English? I asked W.S. He went into a huff: ‘I write Modern English.’ And then, after I’d soothed him: ‘From the books in the No Fear Shakespeare series, from somebody called SparkNotes,’ Will revealed. ‘You mean you read them the other way round?’ I quipped, trying to suppress a smile. ‘And what has been the proudest moment in your four hundred years as the greatest poet on earth?’ I asked. ‘It’s when the ELBS’ – that’s the English Language Book Society – ‘was selling my complete works in India – in one volume – for six rupees,’ Will declared. ‘I know,’ I said, ‘I bought one of those from the A. H. Wheeler stall at the Gonda railway station back in ’78.’

‘A. H. Wheeler? An Englishman?’ Will said.

‘It’s a hundred percent Indian company founded by a French author and an Indian businessman – a Bengali, by the way – back in 1877. They specialised in selling books at railway stations,’ I told Master W. Shakespeare, wondering what his reaction would be.

Will seemed pleased: ‘So you bought me from a merchant half a world away? At the back of beyond, as that Scott fellow would have put it? Boy, am I famous! To which happenstance do I owe this honour?’

‘They founded the East India Company, that’s your John Company, in 1600, when you were thirty-six years old. The rest is history, yours as much as ours,’ I said.

Of guitars, English and kalashnikovs

Right at this moment there are kids sitting anywhere from the favelas of Sao Paulo to a barsati in New Delhi to a high-rise in Seoul plucking away at those six strings which mean the world to them. Some of those kids are getting tears in their eyes because it’s so hard to press down the strings for the chords, your fingers don’t seem to have enough strength, and then the strings cut into the flesh of the still delicate and childlike fingers.

Just wait a year or two and you’ll see that kid in his or her first band – the girls usually go for singing and songwriting as well, or is that only in the West? Wait another year and you might be having a J-pop or a K-pop wonder on your hands. Kids, teenies, youngsters everywhere in the world have two ambitions in life: to play the guitar and to be able to speak English – even sing in English. Do both and you’re a star from Poland to New Caledonia – at least in your school. And the joke is that it’s not a dream marketed by Disney studios or Mattel, the kids thought it up themselves.

You see, the guitar – in its original, clearly feminine form, as well as in its latest Heavy Metal incarnations which look more like torture instruments – is sexy, to put it in a nutshell, and that to anybody, anywhere in the world, unless that person is over fifteen.

Secondly, it’s the one thing that’s neither on the school curriculum nor on the priority list of your parents when it comes to the progeny’s accomplishments: do we even realise that Justin Bieber is the true Harry Potter and JK Rowling the pseudonym under which his mother writes about her brat’s adventures? Oh yes, I’ve had friends back then before the moon landing who were practising away at their ‘spanish’ guitars – as opposed to the ‘hawaiian’ guitar – and looking for stray Goanese musicians in Calcutta to teach them the much-coveted ‘finger style’ of the flamenco guitar. Until they went off to study mechanical engineering in Jadavpur.

The guitar overtook English as the lingua franca of the world at around the same time that the annual turnover of the music industry beat the armaments industry for the first time. Can you imagine more guitars being sold than kalashnikovs? And the joke is that you’ll find a guitar in almost every place in the world – be it in the bush in Congo or on the streets of Moscow – that you’ll find a kalashnikov. Both are ubiquitous. This is what those aliens will be saying when they discover the earth in the distant future: “Those earthlings made music before they killed each other.’’

And they spoke English, or at least tried to – I’d hasten to add. “Was it their lanuage?’’ Not really, but they needed it for the song texts – I tell the aliens. “Was it difficult?” Not at that level – you just rhyme baby with maybe and so on, or shake you booty if you can’t think of anything else – I tell my Buddha-like guests. “And that made the earthlings happy?” Yes, all earthlings under fifteen – I tell them with a sigh. “Can we learn English?” ‘You’ll have to learn the guitar first,’ I tell them, upon which they board their flying saucer and whoosh back to outer space to the tune of Ground Control to Major Tom.

I was thinking about it after the aliens had left. Hadn’t English somehow been like my guitar too, throughout my life? Coming from the kind of circumstances that I do, a guitar or guitar lessons would have blown the family budget right up to Higher Secondary (just the Bengali version of School Leaving). So I concentrated on English instead. I taught it to myself as those kids teach themselves how to play the guitar. It certainly helped to go to school but that was about as much use as the music teacher to John Lennon – and we’re not talking about my vanity here. You’ve got to love the language. You’ve got to try out the phrases from Wodehouse to Joyce the way you try out the chords – until you begin to compose on your own. All the while you are dreaming of becoming a lit-star like Salman Rushdie – well, not quite, Midnight’s Children was the Origin of Species of Indo-Anglian literature. And then Arundhati came along, with a sensibility and a language and an X-ray trick of bombarding the central thought with images until the shape begins to emerge. There’s been Adiga’s ‘What the Driver Saw’ in The White Tiger since.

Maybe I should learn how to play the guitar.

Learning Doitch

The ‘language issue’ might have determined the whole course of my life here in Europe.

I got three shocks when I first came to Germany.

Firstly, it was as if my entire savings had been wiped out by a bank failure, as if I’d gone bankrupt. My English was suddenly worthless – like a currency that was no longer valid. Secondly, coming from a country where the kind of English you spoke practically decided your class, category and social status, it was surprising to find a developed, prosperous, western nation doing entirely without it. The Germans seemed to manage with their German. Translators and interpreters saw to the rest, where languages rubbed shoulders. Thirdly, I hadn’t known how difficult it would be to learn German, to attain the same level of proficiency in German as in English.

But I was perceptive. There were certain things which I saw or realized, some at once, some with the passage of time: that language or languages are a part of the geography of a continent, you can’t disregard them any more than you can disregard the Alps. Language represents the true borders of a country, its defences, its Siegfried and Maginot Lines – even its Chinese Wall! Nation means physiognomy, language and religion, in that order. These are the things that bind and the things that separate tribes, and keep them strictly divided from one another. Languages leave their mark on history and bear its imprint, in their turn. One can, with a certain effort of the imagination, conceive of a world with only one, or no religion, even a world where physiognomy and skin colour and the other anthropoid characteristics do not play a role – but it is difficult to imagine a world in which everybody speaks the same language, makes the same sounds to signify the same things – unless we all start speaking in smileys. Otherwise there will always be ‘us’ and ‘them’, meaning the others, once called barbarians, today simply foreigners or aliens. Or at best everybody will have to turn multilingual on an unprecedented scale – and we’ll have to demarcate the operative areas of the various languages as well: English will be the language of politics and poetry, Japanese of trade and industry, American of armaments and entertainment, German of law and order, French of love, Chinese of dogma, Italian of domesticity, Arabic of religion, Russian of the Black Market, Polish of immigration, Spanish of unemployment, Hindi of poverty and Swahili of starvation. Some such scheme.

And then there’s the question of the accent. In those early days, I was vastly surprised to see a Samaranch or a Perez de Cuellar speak a very curious kind of English, to say the least, and apparently nobody sniggered. Somebody like Kohl, the Chancellor of a mighty nation, might even need an interpreter to translate President Bush’s golfing jokes to him. Kennedy once declared, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, ‘I am a Berliner’ (which is otherwise a kind of sugared bun with marmalade in it), in an atrocious accent, and won the heart of the German nation. So it wasn’t necessary to speak everybody’s language with perfect ease, after all, or was it? Then why were the Turks laughed at here in Germany? Why was an ‘Indian’ accent so incorrigibly funny in Britain?

That was another problem: you learnt their language, they wanted you to get the right accent; you did that, and they wanted you to change the way you dressed, you cooked, you prayed, you beat your wife; you did that, and they wanted you to change the colour of your skin.

In any case, the main division in Germany was between those who spoke German, and those who didn’t, or spoke only in infinitives. The main division in the world was between people, otherwise dumb, ignorant people like you and me, who’d had the chance to learn a language from the age and the stage of an unaborted foetus upwards, and learnt it badly, but were still ‘natural’ to those parts by the joint operation of jus soli and jus sanguinis, and the others who had begun far too late, their heads and hearts full of some other kind of gibberish, their tongues twisted out of shape by other vowels, syllabic liquids, dipthongs, voiced and voiceless, aspirate or unaspirated or nasal, velar, palatal, retroflex, dental or labial consonants, not to mention the conjunct ones.

I found myself relegated to the second category and had no intention of remaining there. What I hadn’t taken into account was the fact that when an Indian spoke English, there was at least a major historical accident behind it. But when an Indian spoke German, it was a purely personal accident. And it has remained just that – a source of permanent despair and perpetual pain.

Learning Doitch. I did my best, of course, but I had difficulty remembering the gender and the appropriate articles, conjugating the verbs, declining the adjectives, forming plurals, deciding the cases, forming the participles of the strong verbs, keeping the various meanings of the weak, separable verbs separate in accordance with the respective prefixes, which are basically prepositions. The vocabulary had to be acquired. But English and German words often tend to sound similar, with just that shade of difference in the meaning. And English idioms cause so much of incomprehension here in Germany that it is fatal to use them in translation. And one should simply forget the prepositional idioms – which are basically the English equivalent of German separable verbs. One should either stick to the German separable verbs, if any alien has ever succeeded in mastering them, or even venture farther afield into German idioms, which are as phlegmatic as oxen waiting to be yoked.

The battle between German and English had begun, my poor Bengali mind caught between the mighty armies of two European languages, Dunkirk, German on the advance, English retreating.

I was there.

(To be contd.)

English Made Me (3)

…Mind you, the fairy tale was our first Rapid Reader. The main English textbooks were of the usual, Indian sort – child or goat could chew through them from January till December and derive as little moisture as nourishment. We had written examinations in each subject thrice a year. And in English the questions were set from those textbooks – there was a separate paper for grammar and a separate tome for it, Hall & Martin, about which later.

You must get the overall picture first: here’s your native Indian boy setting out in life to learn English. He’s got his textbook, his grammar and his rapid reader. The textbooks had lessons of the ‘Aladdin and His Lamp’ sort in them. The whole game, for the teacher as well as the pupils, was to devise as many questions as possible to each lesson, questions which could be neatly answered by merely quoting a certain number of lines from the text, verbatim. You either underlined the ‘answers’ in the text, or put them in brackets. Bracketing was better, since the answers often overlapped – so you could use the second and the third brackets as well, as in mathematics. The only trick, apart from memorising half the text (if not the whole of it), was to begin your answer by flipping the question over like a pancake or an omelette and getting your cue from it, so to speak. ‘What happened when Aladdin rubbed his lamp?’ Answer: ‘When Aladdin rubbed his lamp’, his arse exploded and his balls fell off and so on, all there in the text for you.

Perhaps the most mindless way of learning a language, trust us Bengalis to have discovered it or devised it, and perhaps not – since the Nobel prize winning German language author Elias Canetti learnt his German in a similar manner, it seems. His parents used to speak German as a kind of secret language and Canetti learnt the sounds, without a clue as to their meaning – that came later, after he had turned twelve – or that’s what I seem to have read. Well, we were slightly better off in the sense that we knew the meaning of the words (in most cases). We could read the language, even understand it, but we could not speak it. We could not form sentences on our own, of our own. That was the crux, that was the nightmare. I was under the impression that one had to memorise thousands of sentences in English to be able to speak the language.

I remember visiting a Japanese ship on the Hooghly with my uncle – they had a closed-circuit TV on it, that was the main attraction. I remember European sailors with tattooed forearms who reeked abominably of sausages and beef – as I discovered later. My uncle spoke to one of them: I remember staring at the pink knees of the sailor and the blonde hairs on his legs, while my heart swelled with admiration for my uncle, who’d learnt all those sentences by heart, and well enough to fish out the exact ones he needed, even in an extreme situation like that. After all, he was talking to a gorilla in its own language, somehow assuaging that sausage-and-beef-eating monster and keeping it in good humour so that it wouldn’t fly into a sudden rage and throw us overboard.

It went on like that right up to class four and then, towards the beginning of class five, Father, in his wisdom, took a foolscap sheet and wrote the word ‘Tense’ on it. Boy, was I tense! The page filled up slowly: Present, Past and Future; First Person, Second Person, Third Person; Singular, Plural; Indefinite, Continuous, Perfect and Perfect Continuous. The verb Father chose was ‘to go’, I’d be choosing the verb ‘to shit’ later, while teaching conjugation to my younger brothers: I shit, you shit, he/she/it shits and so on, right down to ‘I shall have been shitting’, that’s your perfect continuous, I was heart-broken later when they told me that there’s no such thing as perfect continuous: ‘I shall have been shitting’. What do they think I’ve been doing all my life?

All in all, I was formulating my own sentences in English before the end of the term, I can only compare it to learning how to ride a bicycle – you are suddenly released from gravity, from bondage, you take an evolutionary leap forward. You can suddenly pedal from one end of the sentence to the other, from one full stop to another, without crashing or having to put your feet down…

It’s been one of the few miracles in my life.

(To be continued)

English Made Me (2)

The story will have to be told, I suppose.

I don’t remember learning the alphabet, that must have happened somehow, though I seem to remember the succulent red-and-gold apple illustrating ‘A’ and looking like something Eve had just plucked for Adam – still think of it as Adam’s apple, I do. Otherwise the book was a Longman’s primer, which meant that it had been imported from London, no wonder Eve had been at it.

Nor do I remember anything of the B-A-T bat, C-A-T cat stage, though which Indian will not remember the famous Kishore Kumar song to the effect that if c-a-t cat means billi and r-a-t rat means chuha, what’s the harm in my heart being in your clutches (closest translation)? No wonder we Indians never learnt English.

And then I was put in the kindergarten section of the South Point school in South Calcutta – as if it could be North Point! The school was situated in Mandeville Gardens off Swinhoe Street. A green gate and a high wall, behind which there was a largish bungalow complete with a tiled roof. The patch of ground in front must have been the lawn but had been trodden bare by the time I was coralled, don’t remember having seen a single blade of grass. We called our English teacher ‘Miss’ instead of ‘Didimoni’ (literally, ‘jewel of an elder sister’) since it was an English medium school. She was the first woman I ever fell in love with. Remember, we’re talking about the mid-’fifties – not her age, silly. She must have been around thirty and dressed and did her hair exactly like one of those educated ‘Brahmo’ ladies in Tagore’s tales – she might even have been one, for all I know.

She used to sit at the piano in her pale blue sari made of some billowy stuff called georgette, as I seem to have gathered even at that tender age, though not why georgette, what georgette, did it have something to do with King George? No, it was invented by an early 20th century French dressmaker by the name of Georgette de la Plante – which it has taken me another century to find out. In any case, Miss used to sing us nursery songs, English nursery songs, accompanying herself on the piano. One black high-heeled shoe worked the pedal while her eyes steamed over behind her fashionable, gold-rimmed spectacles. I believe she used to use (now, what kind of English is that, Dakoo?) lipstick, I’d seen stains of it on her dazzlingly white, slightly horsy teeth.

I was Miss’s favourite pupil – women always reciprocate true love. And of course I learnt my lessons better and faster than the others. So when our class had to put up a show for the annual prize distribution ceremony, she invented an act just for the two of us. On stage, she’d hold up various cards each bearing a verb like ‘run’, ‘sit’ or ‘jump’, and I’d enact the verb, so to say. There were a couple of microphones hanging low for some group-song to follow and I ‘ran’ into one of them with such force that it sounded like a clap of thunder over the loudspeakers. I was seeing stars (though not stripes, being British to the core) and there was a buzzing in my ear for the rest of those excruciating five minutes. But I did not let ‘her’ (that’s why Rider Haggard called his novel ‘She’) down. I ‘sat’, ‘jumped’ and ‘threw’ with alacrity all for her sake, only for her sake.

And then they wanted to give me a double promotion (ahem) directly from cagey one to class one, which my father thought was outrageous. So I was taken out of South Point and put in a much larger cattle pen called St. Lawrence High School – still in South Calcutta, crossing Ballygunge Circular Road/Richie Road – wouldn’t think we Bengalis ever had anything to do with Calcutta if you looked at the street names, in those days.

In any case, it was the end of my very first love affair and the beginning of a second, unbeknownst – this time with the English language. Take our English story-book, class one (designating the first year in the primary section, silly, not ‘class’ in terms of quality as in the EU agricultural norms). It – the book – was a fairy-tale. Again, freshly imported from England, beautiful white pages, beautifully printed and beautifully illustrated. There were gnomes and fairies in it, cottages and flowers and trees. The fairy-tale world with every imperfection removed: not just from the pictures – those shitless dogs and dungless cattle – but also from the paper, from the print, from the binding. I was most impressed by the print: large letters that did not smudge at all, you could admire even the commas and the full stops. And if there’s one smell that women should aspire to, it’s the smell of a new book – not an Indian book, printed in Kolkata or Kanpur or Delhi, where you can smell the gum in the binding, especially if it’s damp. And in those days, the gum would often have a smell like food that is rotting since it was not gum at all but just cooked rice, crushed and smeared, same stuff that we repaired our kites with. But the ink at least smelt good. And the paper, even Indian paper. Paper always has that crispy feeling when it’s new, like the starched sari of an Indian woman – georgette be blown.

And you thought we were talking about English?

(To be continued)

‘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…