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.
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.
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.
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 deficient, below-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 Jodhpur–like 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?