Monday, May 30, 2011

Kavi-speak: Indian English is the Real Cheez!

Indian English is the real Cheez!

The word Chizzi held the same joy for me as a kid growing up in India that the word candy or chocolate probably held (or holds) for an American kid. Cheez is a common word in Hindi, (pronounced as chee-jz) and refers to a thing, sometimes to a special treat, (sometimes even to a hottie). Chizzi usually referred to candy or some Indian sweet/dessert like burfi, and still is a word used in my village in the Himalayas. It so happens (says Rushdie in a similar essay on etymology) that the word cheez is derived from the English word cheese. The eighteenth century Indians observed that Europeans (probably French) reserved a relish for cheese unmatched by other food items. Somehow we adopted the word and started referring to special things as cheez, mispronouncing it adequately, to make it sound desi (Indian).

English is full of words from Indian languages that appear in their new "avatar" with new pronunciations and connotations. While we Indians have worshipped the humanized avatars of God Vishnu for thousands of years, the internet has created impersonal avatars of us humans, and most of these new-age avatars are not worth worshipping. But one of the avatars of the Indian God, Jagannath (literal meaning: Lord of the World) is so powerful we have a word juggernaut coined after him. Up until seventeenth century, India contributed nearly a third of world's GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and China contributed a similar share. No wonder then that the word cash has its origins in Sanskrit karsh, a weight equal to 1/4000th of a gram of gold or silver. In Arabian Nights, or in the plays by Sophocles (who wrote three tragedies around the life of King Oedipus) as well as in many other ancient texts, India finds mention time and again for its gold and other riches. After coming to USA, I learned that food cooked with gravy is called an Indian curry: in North and South India, the word curry has specific meanings that are lost in translation.

Words travel across cultures more easily than humans do, and certainly if you speak any languages other than English, you will compile a similar long-list of borrowed words. To say Indian English is the real cheez though is to also recognize that English speaking/reading Indians exceed the combined strength of English speakers in the United Kingdom and the United States. By our sheer number, Indians may well begun to own the English language, and maybe some old Indian words (and associated cultural heritage) will then return to us. For example, pajama was a common garment in India (and I hear also in our sister nation of Persia or Iran), before the British trousers triumphed over it. Now pyjamas have returned and are sold in their expensive avatars in India! Bungalow used to be a house made in Bangla (Bengali) style; modern Indians make bungalows thinking they are building houses that are in some western, 'modern' style. To tie in Hindi is bandhna and in English, we end up with the fashionable bandana. As a child I would find khaat in villages, sometimes khatiya, but now everyone uses beds, though cot is now an established word in the English language.  

When Indian exported Panchtantra fables that inspired Aesop and later La Fontaine to compose their own versions, we helped to create the word jackal, a derivative of Sanskrit shringaal. The word mugger (who attacks stealthily) is derived from Sanskrit word for crocodile, makar and probably the fables caried this word across too. When you hear about mugging next time, think of a crocodile. Yes, even the jungle out there is from Hindi/Srinkrit word.  Lac and lacquer both come from Hindi laakh (Sanskrit laksh), and we Indians import lacquer paints these days. The rock band Nirvana used a common word from Indian philosophy/ religions that means "blowing out" (in sense of becoming absolutely free from cycle of life and death; for example, Buddha got Nirvana). Unfortunately, the Sanskrit words Arya and Swastika have become associated with Nazis (who used both words sacrilegiously: the explanation itself requires another article). One day, we Indians will reclaim these two words in English language, make them shed their worst Western connotations and restore their original meanings of "urbane" and "associated with good". My favorite anglicized word is Shampoo, which comes from the Hindi word champu (Sanskrit champna meaning kneading). We Indians make fun of friends who use excessive hair-oil by calling them champu teli, the phrase that could mean "shampoo-oily" or maybe "shampooed oil-maker". Many Indians who use shampoo believing it is a new age cheez would be bemused by this etymology, but will remember kneading while shampooing.  Let me end this short piece on another sweet note. While I enjoyed chizzi, which was not cheesy, my friends in US and UK ate candy, which comes from the word khand that means sugar in Sanskrit.

(Inspired by Borges & Ved Vyas)

1 comment:

Ajar Vashisth said...

Wonderful blog .. But how much ever detail you may describe it , chizzi remains just what it was sometimes a toffee (often colored candy witout wraper), sometimes a piece of burfi or besan burfi and sometimes a fruit.

Thanks for sharing the blog !