The monsoon | A cultural dictionary of Indian English

Late last year, David Crystal spoke about his priority for the next 50 years – the creation of an online cultural dictionary. He clarified that culture here refers to everything that makes a community unique. He went to discuss the role of a second language within this cultural community.

When a country adopts a language as a local alternative means of communication, it immediately starts adapting it to meet the communicative needs of the region. Words for plants and animals, food and drink, customs and practices, politics, sports and games … accumulate a local word stock that’s unknown outside the country and it environs.

David Crystal

I’ve been contemplating writing a series of posts about Indian English for some time now.  In 2016, I did some audits at a BPO to evaluate the quality of their trainers and their training. I was dismayed at how many of them, usually inadvertently and definitely not maliciously, propagated a belief to their employees that Indian English was an erroneous half-breed that they ought to expunge from their speech.  It’s curious to note that this variety of English spoken by around 125 million Indians (although that’s a drop in the ocean of Indian languages) was consistently minimised by these trainers using the dismissive expression ‘Indianism’.

Sadly, they’re not alone. Many Indians have a poor sense of ownership for a language they’ve been subverting and making their own for over three centuries. English has a long and rich history in India. In fact, the first Indian to write in English, Sheikh Din Muhammed, published his book The Travels of Dean Mahomet in 1793.

It also doesn’t help the Internet is brimming with articles that are either whingeing about how terribly incomprehensible Indian English is or full of inaccuracies like this article by an English teacher who allegedly specialises in phonology (check the undercurrent of irritation in my otherwise polite comment and the inane responses I received).

Indian English is whimsical, plurilingual, dynamic, utilitarian, allusive, idiomatic, and wears its motley history like a badge and I hope to capture some of it in my attempt at a cultural dictionary.


Monsoon Indian English

It’s been a week since the monsoon reached the west coast of India, a natural phenomenon that has literally shaped South Asia and its cultures.  But oddly, for a rain-bearing wind that is so pivotal to life in India, the monsoon has an Arabic name. It came to us from the Arabic word for season ‘mawsim’ via Portuguese. In fact, Hindi speakers (influenced by Urdu) prefer to use ‘mausam’ to describe both seasons and more generally the weather than words perceived as native in chaste Hindi. However, mausam, unlike monsoon, doesn’t describe rain.

The word is overwhelmingly  used in the singular and usually (and surprisingly for a community of English speakers known for their uneasy relationship with articles) with the definite article, i.e., the monsoon. Occasionally, it’s used in its plural form like in this ad – Inspired by the monsoons. But I suspect people are actually thinking of the phrase ‘the rains‘ (which is commonly used to refer to the monsoon) when they talk about the monsoons.

Strictly speaking the monsoon isn’t a season although the phrases monsoon season and rainy season are ubiquitous. India has two monsoons: the summer or south-west monsoon and the winter or north-east monsoon. Much of the rain falls during the south-west monsoon which has two arms: the Bay of Bengal arm and the Arabian Sea arm. 

The onset and progress of the monsoon across the subcontinent is associated with some specific lexis. The monsoon is generally described as arriving in an area. This same news report talks about the monsoon entering and setting in the region. The arrival of the monsoon is usually heralded by pre-monsoon showers.  These are often to referred to as mango showers (a direct translation from the Hindi आमृ वर्षा or aam varsh) because they apparently help in the ripening of mangoes.  The other herald is a bird, the koel whose timely and evocative cries just before the rains made it a favourite of ancient Indian poets (it continues to be favored by contemporary Indian English poets; read this selection of five poems about the rains and this insightful piece on the connection between the two). 

The monsoon can also a hit a region but Google tells me that it has a preference for hitting Kerala, where it first makes landfall. The early days of a monsoon season can be predictive about its performance as we are told in this article about a timely onset which leads the monsoon to make rapid progress as well as progress rapidly, all in the same paragraph. Maps that describe the (gradual) onset of the monsoon are very common in newspapers in June and July of each year.  The monsoon might make a steady advance but it could also race up the west coast which might cause it to push past cities as the leading edge of the monsoon surges over regions.

800px-India_southwest_summer_monsoon_onset_map_en.svg.png

A lot of the language associated with the monsoon is evaluative; experts and commoners alike comment on its strength. It’s very common in India to hear people talk about getting good rains or a good amount of rainfall, a situation that’s sometimes described as a normal or a near-normal monsoon. I’ve always been perplexed though by the phrase above-normal monsoon which describes a successful rather than an excessive monsoon, where ideally the phrase ‘normal monsoon’ ought to suffice.

The monsoon is described as having a schedule and like most things on a schedule, the monsoon can be ahead of schedule and behind schedule.  And before you know it, the monsoon covers half of India and many Indians perhaps visualise this monsoon distribution as an inverted triangle half smothered by clouds; I know I do. In years marked by weak monsoons (interestingly the collocation strong monsoon isn’t very common unless it’s used to describe winds), people bandy about words like deficientbelow-normal, and monsoon deficit. While Indians often find small talk about the weather inane (it’s hot – how long can you really talk about the heat?), monsoon time is an exception. A: How are the rains? B: Rains are good this year yah. A: Good no water problem then nah?. 

When the monsoon first bursts on the west coast and in the hinterland of the east (especially Cherrapunji and Mawsynram in the Khasi-Jaintia hills famed solely for their record rainfalls), people begin to nose around their lofts for their gum boots (handy for keeping good old lepto aka leptospirosis at bay) although some prefer rain shoes or sandals perhaps purchased from Bata who helpfully have a monsoon collection. You can’t, however, do without an umbrella and the very best come from Kerala which is lashed first and hardest by the monsoon. In the south of India, everyone knows of the famous rivalry between two cousins, Davis and Joseph Thayyil, that produced a pair of competing umbrella brands, Popy & Johns. I’m a Johns man myself but I know plenty of folks who swear by Popy.

The rains are described as lashing cities and coasts, a phenomenon that might cause waterlogging and chronic flooding, annual urban inundations which are caused more by nepotism and negligence than nature. When corruption is accompanied by cloudbursts, it often results in a deluge that etches itself into collective memory such as the Mumbai floods of 2005 and Mumbaikars continue to ask each other Where were you on 26th July?” (I was at home due to an accident of timetabling and escaped the worst of it). I’m sure the citizens of Chennai and Uttarakhand have a similar way of referring to the floods that visited them in 2015 and 2013 respectively.

The slum dwellers of the big cities cover their tin roofs in blue tarpaulin, almost Jodhpurlike when viewed from a plane, praying for breaks in the monsoon. There’s a popular North Indian proverb which I’m probably going to mangle in translation but it goes something like this: When the Lord gives, he splits open roofs to provide. With rain, it’s usually a case of too much or too little. Delayed monsoons are addressed through quirky rituals including frog weddings and mud baths.

And when it rains relentlessly for weeks on end for up to four months (often caused by cyclonic circulations or depressions in the Bay of Bengal), it’s understandable that some are prone to the monsoon blues. You could soothe those mood swings with a monsoon raga. But if you’re more adventurous and live along a mountain range such as the Western Ghats, you might go trekking to an old hill fort. Or you could stay  high and dry at home with a cup of garam (hot) chai, pakoras (incidentally, this week’s Mint Lounge weekend supplement has an article titled ‘Cloudy with a chance of pakodas and this article from The Hindu explores the correlation between pakoras and rain) and bhajias (fritters), ducking out to get a blistering hot bhuta (chargrilled corn on the cob with chilli and lime) from the bhutawala on a the corner with his wheeled cart and parasol nicked from an insurance salesman. I don’t recommend eating out during the monsoon and I’m cautious about rambling in the hills. The monsoon is also the season of diseases; dengue, malaria, cholera, typhoid, chikungunya and everyone’s favourite leptospirosis prowl the streets and pepper conversations.

But just as quickly as it enveloped the subcontinent, the monsoon begins its retreat back towards the coast. The retreating monsoon dumps the last of its moisture on a fast drying land whose people store away their rich monsoon lexis until they need it again next year.

What words and phrases do you associate with the monsoon? If you were to write a cultural dictionary about the ‘rainy season’ in your own language, what would be the most interesting or unusual entry?

Image attribution: Onset dates and prevailing wind currents of the southwest summer monsoons in India | Saravask | Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “The monsoon | A cultural dictionary of Indian English

  1. Hello, Adi –
    It is interesting to read about your attempt at a cultural dictionary.
    To answer your question at the end of your post: the vagaries of the monsoon.
    Have you read Jyoti Sanyal’s Indlish: The Book for Every English Speaking Indian? In this book, the author goes into details of the role of the clerical language of the East India Company in shaping Indian English. He is of the opinion that Indian English has many archaic expressions inherited from that era.
    He also discusses the influence of Indian languages and their language structures – how those have shaped structures in Indian English.
    I read Jovana Čenejac’s article, your comments, and her response.
    Don’t you agree with her that “accent is still an important factor in defining social identity?”
    Ravi

    Like

    • Thanks for commenting Ravi. Vagaries of the monsoon is a fab expression to add to my list.

      I own a copy of Sanyal’s Indlish. Find his deficit approach to cataloging Indian English very mean spirited and the exact opposite what I’d like to do.

      It seems to me that Jovana Čenejac is intentionally obfuscating the issue. She is not talking about social identity but cultural identity and acceptance within that context. I don’t think she’s making a general observation as she is a prescription for minimizing your own identity and assimilating with another.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s