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Yeh hai Hinglishtan meri jaan!

You can see why Mumbai has always been spinning its own slang, redefining language and metaphors, explains Jerry Pinto.

books Updated: Sep 06, 2008 16:11 IST
Jerry Pinto

Slang, said the American poet Carl Sandburg, is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work. The British writer GK Chesterton agreed. He said, "All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry." Thomas Hardy was not convinced. He felt it bore the terrible marks of the beast. To which Munnabhai said, "Bole to?" <b1>

Not so simple
If we take the first definition, you can see why Mumbai has always been spinning its own slang, redefining language and appropriating metaphors. If you take the second definition, you can still see glimmers of folk poetry in an expression like Papad pehelwan to describe the a young man who tries to look tough but might crumble like the crisp and crackly papad upon contact. The third? Ah well, slang is not always quite so simple.

Once upon a time the divide was clear and simple. It ran along the divide that separated those who spoke English naturally and fluently from those who didn't.

Tapori talk
Now, with the advent of tapori, the slang of the roadside Romeo, things are a little more complicated. Tapori is the Indian middle class' way of making itself feel safe when confronted by the Great Unwashed. It is a method of distancing and it is a method of appropriation. Just as white people took to the black music that was jazz, the Indian Middle Class has taken tapori unto its soul and into its wallet. Advertising now routinely uses a mixture of English and Hindi and tapori. We are all being asked what our bahana is, we all want our lives to be jhingalala, and then some because our dil maange more. One of the most powerful examples was the jingle that advertised milk:
Doodh hai must in every season
Piyo doodh for healthy reason
Rahoge phir fit and fine
Jiyoge past ninety-nine

But really, this isn't about Hindi so much as it is about English. The language has always been a bottom-feeder, shamelessly taking words from whatever other linguistic tradition it encounters. When the British came to India they did not bother to find another word for ayah. They did not try and say indigenous nanny. They simply said ayah. <b2>

Hinglish way
Hinglish is only a logical extension of that ability. (And the experts maintain that Hinglish isn't really a language anyway because it does not allow grammatical changes. It is just code switching in which you segue from one language to another. As my brother Macks might say: Godknows men what dese buggers' problem beeze.)

Whether it is or is not a language, it is a powerful force because there are 350 million Indians who speak English. These Indians represent the growing middle class and its growing spending power. The linguist Max Weinreich said, "A dialect is a language with an army and a navy." Today, one might say, a dialect is a language that has plastic.

And Mumbai, the fabled city of gold where the first boom came and the cotton farmers lined their wheels with silver, the city of dreams almost all of which are commercial and involve the making of money, the city of Bollywood billionaires and beggars who die leaving behind enough in small change to buy themselves phenomenal funerals, has enough to fund a language.

Sing along

After all, it can't be an accident that two of its anthemic songs are both written in a mixture of Hindi and English. Mina Cava's song Bombay Meri Hai,(lyrics by Naju Cava), the quintessential picnic song, threw open its arms to the world in 1969:
Come from England, come from Scotland, come from Ireland
Come from Holland, come from Poland, come from any land
If you're looking out for a pleasant holiday,
Come to Bombay, come to Bombay, Bombay meri hai


But even before that CID (1956, Raj Khosla) offered us these lovely lines in the cautionary song, Zara hatke, zara bachke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan:
Kahin building kahin traame, kahin motor, kahin mill
Milta hai yahan sab kuchh ik milta nahin dil
(There are buildings, there are trams, there are cars, there are mills
You will find everything here but you won't find a heart.)

Mill
and dil? Only in Hinglish. Only in Mumbai.

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