The London Book Fair, a publisher’s marketplace, is not usually the hub of linguistic theory. But away from the madding crowd inside the British Council lounge at the Earl’s Court fair venue, an intense discussion on the ‘purity’ of languages was underway.
Surrounded by Nandan and Rohini Nilekani, Sudeep Chakravarti, Ramachandra Guha and Mani Shankar Mukherjee a.k.a. Shankar, poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar was holding forth on how a music director’s instructions to him in ‘pure’ Urdu was impossible to communicate to the musicians.
The subject then veered to variations of Indian English from different regions. While everyone was citing their examples of English usage in India, suddenly Shankar, best-selling author of the novel, Chowringhee, said, “Don’t you think we need a language police on the lines of the French?”
Initially, everyone thought he was joking. But when he proceeded to say how “there’s a need to see to it that English is not misused the way it is”, the gathering became silent. Was he being serious or playing the prank? Doubts were cleared when the Bengali author added that it would be a good idea if a team from Britain were sent to “Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata to measure the standards of English” and then suitably keep a “quality check” on the language. Nandan Nilekani was heard nervously telling Mukherjee, “Shankar, no more on this language police please.”
At the bash hosted by the British Council on the Richard Branson-owned, 6,000 square feet-sprawling sixth floor grounds of the Kensington Roof Gardens on Kensington High Street, biggies like Vikram Seth, Suketu Mehta and Romesh Gunasekara rubbed shoulders with the writers, publishers and ‘publishing types’. As air kisses and literary gossip were being traded furiously, Seth had his mind fixed on the birds.
By which one means, of course, the flamingoes that are part of the art deco decor outside the club house. On hearing that apart from the pair of pink flamingoes there was also a white couple, our suitable boy, fortified by red wine, rushed to look for them. “Where are the white flamingoes? There are white flamingoes!” exclaiming which Seth with a group of gushing admirers set off to look for the birds.
Umberto Eco was a changed man at the Book Fair venue. For one, he had lost his beard. And for another, instead of speaking about mass media and the signs of our times, he was giving out tips to members of the audience who wanted to get their copies of Eco’s books signed. “Please write your names clearly on a piece of paper. In London, Michael can be Michel can be Mike can be Michelle. There is probably Turkish immigrant spellings too. So please write them down.” Well, at least Eco was talking about the semiotics of proper nouns.
At a literary evening at the Royal Society of Arts hosted by Penguin UK entitled ‘The Many Avatars of the Indian Creative Mind’, Amartya Sen, Ramachandra Guha, Nandan Nilekani, Amartya Sen and Vikram Seth, spoke for their supper about various facets of India and Indianness.
The evening ended with a member of the audience asking the distinguished panel which language each member thought and spoke in. While the other panelists explained their basic bilingualism, with the exception of Nilekani who said he was “proud to think, speak and write in English”, it was left to Sen to bring out the pointlessness of the query.
“With my children, I speak mostly in Bengali, unless there’s someone present who doesn’t understand the language. With my wife, who’s an American who knows French and German but not Bengali, I speak in English,” he said, adding, “And it’s nice to see that we can be understood here in London in English.” Sen had communicated his point to the mirth of the multi-lingual local crowd.