‘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…


English Made Me

What a confession!

The reference – for those who have not guessed already – is to Graham Greene’s ‘England Made Me’. As I tell young men to this day: go and fall in love with somebody else’s daughter if you must, but don’t you go falling in love with somebody else’s language. I did both. And then I landed in Germany, the kind of evolutionary challenge Darwin would have recognised: will my English survive or will it wither on the stony German soil? All because of my English, learning Doitch was turning out to be not just tough but uproariously funny:-

Herr Kampmann: Good Day, Herr Artmann!

Herr Artmann: Good Day, Herr Kampmann!

Herr Kampmann: How goes it You?

Herr Artmann: Thanks good. And You?

Herr Kampmann: Thanks, it goes. Where come You?

Herr Artmann: I come out of Munich.

Herr Kampmann: And whereto travel You?

Herr Artmann: I travel to Bremen.

Herr Kampmann: Live You in Bremen?

Herr Artmann: Yes, I live now in Bremen.

Herr Kampmann: You excuse, Herr Artmann, my Train! To seeing you again!

Herr Artmann: To seeing you again! And good Journey!

This was Grundstufe Eins, that’s Basic Level One, to be followed by Basic Level Two and then Mittelstufe Eins, that’s Middle School – what the hell, they must mean Middle Level One. Well, whatever it is – or was – we were now dealing with texts like:-

One Cardriver strikes with another Cardriver, who from left comes, and whom he coming saw, together (separable verb ‘togetherstrike’), because he Right of Way has – what presses he with that ex (separable verb ‘express’)? Somewhat only his Right of Way? What forces him, himself this Right to take, since he thereby himself and one other nearly the Life takes? What obstructs him, his Need above his Right to put, to whose Realisation this Right after all there had to be? How great must the Maltreatment of his Needs be, so that he the Means to their Realisation for that uses, their Realisation to prevent? Where are, except in Street-intercourse, these Needs so maltreated?

It wasn’t the fault of that very pragmatic and rational language called German that an ex-colonial expat from India was transliterating everything into English in his head and laughing himself silly in the process. He was not laughing himself silly, he was being silly – the Germans would have told him, had they not been so polite. Since then, they’ve been praising my (by now half-baked, though no longer broken) German and completely disregarding my English, overlooking it altogether. Why? Because I’m not a native speaker. What’s a native speaker? Does it mean a native – in those early days of missionising and colonising – who has just learnt how to speak, instead of communicating his thoughts and emotions in terms of grunts and squeaks? Later, it could have meant (I’m just guessing) a native who has learnt to speak English. Ultimately a native speaker is one who was born speaking English – or maybe just hearing English? ‘Hey, if that’s my son, how come he’s got (or has not got) blue eyes and blond hair?’ Though that should apply to all other languages as well (just change the colour of the eyes and the hair), except pidgin, patois and Indian English.

Well, let’s say a native speaker is something like champagne being champagne only if it comes from Champagne, everything else being sparkling wine. Similarly, my English is neither gorgonzola nor mozzarella, it’s just mouldy Indian English – and who has heard of English growing in India after the British left?

And there was I, feeling as if I’d been dropped behind enemy lines during WWII, or at least like Le Carré’s spy before he came in from the cold (war?). I was feeling as intensely British as in a war movie or a war comic of my Kolkata schooldays, while mildly concerned German friends were asking me if I was feeling unwell.

Tell us about Bengali – they’d be saying, to cheer me up or to distract me, even sitting up in their sofas and couches in their enthusiasm. Now, Bengali, that is your mother tongue, is it not? What kind of a language is that?

Why don’t you go and ask the British? I told them. After all, they had been in Bengal for more than two hundred years. Should be ruddy native speakers by now.

(To be continued)