Tag Archives: OnlyInIndia

10 English phrases that make perfect sense to Indians

As humans, we have an ability that is so utterly unique in the natural world – a behavioral pattern that was so transformative, that it effectively changed the trajectory of our evolution. We can take an innovative thought and share it with another person by simply recombining sounds we learned to make as children.

Sure, almost all species communicate. But, only humans have devised this trick called language. Where did this unique trait come from? Why did it evolve? Why are we the only species that has it? While there are not satisfactory answers yet, suffice it to say that there is something peculiar and extraordinary about language that makes simple explanations suspect.

Evolutionary edge from language

According to evolutionary biology, only those traits and behaviors which provide evolutionary benefits survive. An evolutionary benefit is simply anything that helps survival. Example: Tall giraffes survived because they were able to eat from the tops of trees and also developed powerful long legs that can kick even a lion’s head off.

Why language survived is easier to explain than why it arose. Somewhere along the line, humans who had hitherto been “hunters” settled down to become “gatherers”, and formed “civilizations”. In this new construct, language became a “marker”, much like an “identification badge” that was useful in forming tribes. Tribe formation ensured mutual protection of people in the tribe, and so language came to provide an evolutionary edge. Ironically, language which played a useful role in aiding survival, eventually turned into the No. 1 leading killer in the history of humans. More wars have been fought and more lives lost over language than even religion, a sobering reflection on the passions that language can evoke, and perhaps a topic for another day.

English, the World’s Second Language

Once an insignificant language spoken by a handful of people on a tiny island in the North Sea, English has grown to be the global language of science, technology and trade. So much so that China is now the largest English speaking country in the world. And, it’s not just the Chinese. English is in so much demand around the world as the language of advancement that an Indian has built a temple to the goddess English, adding her to the 330 million deities of the Hindu pantheon. Now that English is a global language, with non-native speakers outnumbering native speakers, it has taken on a life of its own in non-English-speaking countries, and the question of correctness, of who owns English, is taking on a new spin.

10 English phrases that make perfect sense to Indians

Let no one misconstrue my attitude as mocking or critical. Far from the truth, as a matter of fact. In the peculiarities of Indian English, I see the boundless creativity of our nation, and its charismatic ability to take anything and put its own indelible stamp on it.

10. Convent educated

An excellent vestige from colonial British Raj. Today used to mean “studied in a Christian school“. Convent comes from the fact that back in those days when there were still nuns, nuns used to teach, and nuns lived in convents back in those days. Clear as crystal, right?

9. Issueless divorcee

Telling a thousand lies is a mere trifle if one has to perform a marriage, as we Indians like to believe. Matrimonial ads abound with prevarications of various kinds, and take full advantage of the foibles of Indian English.

“Rohit, so sorry to hear about your divorce. How are you holding up?”

“Oh that? No problem. It’s going swimmingly well. Other than having to give up my house and half my fortune to the ex, it’s been practically issueless”

Issueless divorcee means divorcee without children. Because, err, children have been known to cause issues.

8. Passing out

Translation: Completed or graduated from school or college or university. The term persists, thanks to the national obsession with tests and exams. Graduating college is the equivalent of passing the associated tests and exams.

“You studied at IIT Madras? When did you pass out?”

“Right after I saw the exam questions”

Or, it could be something as simple and straightforward as “All drinking water in this establishment has been personally passed by the manager”

7. Revert

Translation: Will get back or respond. Dictionary meaning is “regress” or “return to a previous state“. In physics, springs revert. In India, humans do.

“When do you expect to reverse the annual fees on my lifetime free credit card?”

“We will look into it, and revert back to you as soon as possible”

Evokes images of the call center individual rushing off to a therapist and undergoing past life regression to understand how he accumulated the karma and gunas in his past life that caused him to be answering my question on that day.

6. Only

There are several types of shenanigans possible with this simple four letter word.  “I am leaving now only”, “I am leaving only now” all the way to “I only am leaving now”. You probably caught the drift of what’s being attempted here already.

5. But

Used to express doubt, when even there is no reason for doubt. And like “only”, it can make unexpected appearances in any part of any sentence.

Lawyer: “You are lying. How are you sure that my client is the murderer?”

Witness: “I saw him stabbing the victim forty three times but”

A combination of “but” and “only” has been known to spook entire fleets of visiting American executives into thunderstruck silence during business meetings. Add “only” to the witness response above for maximum effect.

4. OK

No one really knows how this term entered the English language. Indians use it to mean anything. Just about anything. Period. There is no known translation for its Indian usage. Folks are advised to make their own interpretations which can vary according to exigencies of situations.

3. Doing the needful

This is a delightful phrase, like avara kedavra, with magical powers. It means to ask someone to do something that neither party has any idea how to get done. Use it often and use it early. See below for example of perfect usage.

Boss’s email to employee: “I need one dragon tooth, two strands of unicorn hair and Harry Potter’s Elder Wand right away. Please do the needful”

2. Intimate

In India, there is a rather unusual usage of this word in the context of informing or notifying someone, which connotes common ancestry with “revert”. “Once I revert, I will intimate you” can be intimidating to handle, we imagine.

1. Felicitate

This word is delightful for the simple reason that no other English speaking country uses it. A bit of a tongue twister, it continues to survive in the written form, in Indian newspapers and government memos. No one else in the world felicitates. But, when you set foot in our lovely country, you will be awash and neck deep in felicitations.

The final word

I can understand the angst that some readers may have about the decline of “propah” English. As consumers, we all want dependable and high quality products. But, when we get too much of the same, we seek, nay, crave the unique, the outlier, the imperfection that makes life interesting. This is true for language as well. The way language works, we all get to go off-script from time to time.  Because we are like that only.

Write back and share your favorite Indianisms proudly. And, oh yeah, let the felicitations begin!

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The What Ho! Guide to Growing the Indian Economy

Growing the Indian economy at 10-12% year-on-year is not as hard as it is made out to be. All it requires is an understanding of the following factors that influence an economy in any part of the world, especially in India.

1. Belief in Hell. 

You have always believed that the ship of the country’s economy is one where the wheel is firmly in the hands of the Reserve Bank governor. RBI sets interest rates, controls liquidity, tracks the velocity of money, monitors inflation, yadda yadda.. so we have heard. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is now widely believed that the health of the economy is, in fact, controlled by a handful of corporate and political types who plunder the treasury in plain sight, dole out sickeningly nepotistic favors to kith and kin and have turned this country into their personal Disneyland. What will stop this inexhaustibly long list of inveterate criminals from their next round of plunder and pillage when they decide that more is better?

According to this study done at Harvard, a country’s belief in hell correlates with its economic development. Researchers analyzed forty years of data and came to the conclusion that the more the population believes in a flaming purgatory, the better are its chances of being less corrupt and becoming more economically advanced. It turns out that belief in eternal damnation is the only thing that stops us all from turning into monstrous jerks. It is interesting to note that belief in God does not cut the mustard. It’s belief in Lucifer that is critical to a nation’s prosperity. The threat of being run over by a herd of mad buffaloes or being boiled alive in a vat of horse urine postmortem is what keeps us on the straight and narrow.

2. The Sun

It is well known that sunny days lead to sunny dispositions. No one, ever in the history of mankind, leapt out on the streets on a cold, rainy day with a song on their lips. You don’t do that. Not unless you live in Transylvania and your name is Dracula.

Research again proves time and again that sunny days breed hope and optimism in human hearts. Exactly the kind of optimism and hope required to splurge ten grand on a dress. You know the one that will make you wonder for the rest of your life about that temporary moment of insanity in which the deed was done. Hope and optimism make people spend more. When they spend more, the economy hums contentedly like a bee in springtime.

3. The Moon

For the longest time, waxing and waning of the moon has been connected to many things from psychological disorders to homicidal violence to suicides. We can add one more feather to the lunar cycle cap. Turns out there is more to folklore than what meets the eye. According to a study published in Harvard Business Review, “…in the 15 days surrounding full moon dates, stock market returns are about half what they are in the 15 days around a new moon”. In other words, stocks and werewolves are not made for each other.

4. The Day of the Week

Let’s face it. None of us look forward to the weekly restart of bedlam on Monday mornings. Mondays officially became the worst days of the week in the post Industrial Revolution era of organized work. And, you guessed right, it’s true for the stock market as well. Mondays are the worst days for Dalal Street, and Wednesdays are best. Fridays, as Navjyot Singh Sidhu would say, are like wives. Hard to tell which way they will go.

You heard it here, folks: Devil worship, 40 degrees Celsius, Amavasya and Wednesdays. The secrets to a 12 pct GDP growth.

And, you thought you knew it all. In a world filled with noise and confusion, there is only one source for clarity and precision in thought: What Ho!

Bollywood, Oscars and a thousand monkeys

Recently watched a movie called Tere Bin Laden, which brings us to the topic of Bollywood. There are many jobs that people do in this world. Each requires a skill of some sort. Indefatigable fortitude goes with postman territory. Rain or shine, the mail never stops. A civil engineer has to display more than average propensity for complex problem solving. Good taxi drivers are blessed with stellar reflexes. And the list goes on. The only known exception to this rule is the Bollywood script writer.

The Indian movie industry is the largest in the world, based on number of movies released. Bollywood, which accounts for a lion’s share, has the distinction of making the most number of horror movies which don’t have ghosts in them. In a country with an abundance of culture, creative talent and money, it is hard to understand this depressing scarcity of quality cinema. The story of Bollywood has followed a script that seems eerily written by one of their own – devoid of plot elements and empty of memorable moments. Some one once said that if you gave typewriters to a thousand monkeys, it was only a matter of time before one of them came up with Hamlet. Well, more than a thousand have been at work in Mumbai for over fifty years, and so far, it’s just been much ado about nothing.

Seems like Bollywood goes “Didn’t ask for a good script. Asked for a script by Tuesday”. Scripts are not just tailored for actors. They  are also written by tailors.

Take a typical Bollywood script these days –

Boy goes to airport to pick up fiancee, who he last met when he was a toddler. Coincidentally, around the same time, girl escapes from mafia uncle by resorting to the proven technique of running on open roads in high heels to elude shiny 200 horsepower BMWs. Girl inexplicably lands up within earshot of boy, overhears conversation about long awaited fiancee, and decides that best course of action is to pretend to be the aforementioned fiancee. What better way to kill a few weeks on the run than to shack up with a complete stranger.

Boy is ecstatic that fiancee resembles Preity Zinta and not Om Puri, rushes home with girl in tow and a song on the lips. Girl learns about boy’s troubled childhood, his existential angst, PAN number and blood group – all via song, and falls madly in love. The next several weeks are spent dancing the flamenco on mountain tops and grassy knolls. Boy-girl swiss vacations, as a rule, are always interrupted by one untimely demise or another. This time, it is daadi-ma’s turn. Reluctantly, boy and girl foot it back. After brief hiatus, dancing makes a come back – this time, it’s salsa on the streets of maximum city in pouring rain.

Meanwhile, mafia uncle uses google maps on his Samsung phone to figure out girl’s coordinates, loads up AK47 and heads over pronto. Coincidentally, boy and girl get into tiff around the same time. The boy happily hands mother of his unborn child back to mafia chacha. At this juncture, mother of boy, hitherto presumed blind and dumb, suddenly starts spouting gospel truths on true love to her beloved son, exhorting him to rescue girl. Boy has change of heart in the time it takes to say “Ready”, but not before indulging in random drinking binge. Original fiancee  surfaces in item number during drinking binge before disapparating back into the void. Boy heads over to mafia uncle’s massive, walled estate, where local hoodlums, Caucasians, municipal corporators, Lalit Modi, shady UN officials, Shiv Sena and Al Qaeda have all gathered in the living room. A few scuffles and an obligatory bleeding lip later, boy rescues girl and they are back to dancing the cha-cha near waterfalls, lakes and other water bodies on remote islands. The End.

And, we wring our hands as to why we haven’t won an Oscar yet. Folks, we are going to need a lot more than a thousand monkeys to pull that off.

ps: Two thumbs up for Tere Bin Laden.

 

The What Ho! Guide to Honking on Indian Roads

 Recently, someone suggested I write about the delightful practice of honking on Indian roads. After mulling this suggestion over for all of two seconds, I decided that I would go even further. Like Starship Enterprise. I would go where no man has ventured before and scientifically explain this riveting “Only in India” phenomenon, which has inexplicably been left unstudied by scientists of repute till date.

The Horn and The Human Body

In most countries, the horn is analogous to the appendix in the human body. A vestige of times past, the horn is largely unused except, of course, by New York cabbies, who must certainly have Indian DNA floating around somewhere in their systems. Honking is typically an unusual event in the West – much like the sounding of the siren during war. If you heard one, it usually meant that something really bad was going on, like the driver was about to hit something or had been cut off on the freeway.

In India, the horn occupies a status at par with the central nervous system. It confers important and critical evolutionary advantages. In the Indian traffic jungle occupied by bicycles, motor cycles, autos, cars, trucks and buses, the blessed horn is the primary means of signaling important messages such as “Dude, I’m here. I’d like to stay alive till my next bonus” to fellow ecosystem occupants.

How did the horn come to occupy such an important position in our society?

There is only one possible explanation. And, as always, we must start at the beginning with how something we are all familiar with – eyesight – works.  The human body is no more than a loosely held federation of bones and flesh, governed by the brain with inputs from a sensory system through a mass of nerves that run up and down from the brain. A notable aspect of the human sensory system is “visual perception”, the ability to interpret information on the surroundings from the effects of visible light reaching the eye. This perception is also known as eyesight, sight or vision. The lack of such perception is referred to as blindness. We’ve all heard the phrase “blind as a bat”. That’s because bats have poor visual perception. They rely on sonar to navigate their way around. To put it in a nutshell, bats have bad eyesight but great hearing.

Close observation of Indian drivers reveals an astounding ability among these species of Homo Sapiens to instantly switch to a “bat-like horn-sonar” based mechanism to detect objects in the vicinity when they get on the roads behind the wheels. Equally astonishing is the ability to filter out and ignore any inputs from the visual perception system.  The maha vakhyas of India road vedanta spell out the inviolable dharmas of driving that govern the lives of pedestrian and driver beings in this universe.

Honking on Indian Roads: The Mahavakhyas

The pedestrian mahavakhya goes “I don’t see you and will assume that the coast is clear until you honk”, rebutted by the honker dharma of “If I honk and receive no response, I have a right to assume that there is nothing unreasonable about continuing to zip along a 20ft wide street in a residential neighborhood

The Indian road dharma, in fact, is to honk everyone to safety, a practice reported in the Rig Veda and implemented around 300BC during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya when fast moving chariots were outfitted with men sounding trumpets as the jalopies trundled through city streets and state highways.

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone, to us Indians of all, that fast moving vehicles, animals and pedestrians will blindly go about their merry ways unless honked at and warned of impending peril.

Proof in the Pudding

Here’s an example. A few weeks back, I was cruising along at 45 kmph on the Outer Ring Road in Bangalore, a luxurious speed by any standards. Further ahead, I espied a couple of gentlemen, who at first glance, appeared to be in two minds (or was it four?) as to – whether to cross the road or not. While they held their 1-on-1 in the middle of the road, debating the relative merits of “to cross or not to cross”, they casually watched my car hurtling itself in a straight line towards them. My right hand lay ready, poised to sound the horn, a-la Clint Eastwood ready to pull the trigger on a bunch of uglies at high noon. And my left hand wrapped itself around the hand brake lever. On that high noon, I was confident that they had spotted me, would take timely evasive action and the trigger would not need to be pulled. My nerves finally cracked and I succumbed to sounding the bugle. The result was an immediate disbandment of 1-on-1 and  a scattering of the individuals – each in a different direction.

These otherwise fine gentlemen had completely suspended their powers of visual perception, naturally assumed that all was kosher in the absence of honking, but acted expeditiously and randomly upon receipt of auditory signals. Quod Erat Demonstratum, which is Punjabi for “I told you so”. I have not rested my case. There’s more.

More Encounters of the Weird Kind

How else do you explain the Indian law that fines you Rs 250, if you drive with headlights *ON* during daylight? The same law does not treat driving *without* headlights on during night as an offence! Headlights at night apparently are optional, preferably turned on just prior to head on impact with oncoming vehicles, livestock or road barriers.

How else can you explain the invariable and random honking that spontaneously erupts when traffic slows to a crawl on congested roads, an occurrence that Bangalore denizens are more likely to have experienced firsthand than others? The only explanation can be impairment of visual perception, causing drivers to resort to horn SOS-es in the irrational hope that the simultaneous sounding of a thousand horns will cause traffic to evaporate instantaneously.

Epilogue

The factory installed horn on my Honda, after a swashbuckling innings at the crease, appears to be giving up its ghost and readying itself for horn heaven, where good horns go when they die. These days, it  bleats at painfully low decibel levels, causing severe consternation to my driver, who is having withdrawal symptoms not unlike a Wall Street broker deprived of his Blackberry. I mean, not even puppies on the street are giving us the time of the day.  Not to mention the fact that my driver comes from the school of thought that believes that the engine will switch itself off unless the horn is used every two minutes or so.

It’s probably about time we moved up the pecking order to one of these electric, polyphonic bad boys which can blast rhinos and elephants out of the way!

Pint Sized Mug Shots

Oh.. the little joys of living in India! How do I describe thee? 🙂 The topic de jour is passport sized photos. Is it me or is there an insane demand for passport sized photos in this country? In all my time of living in the US (a lengthy tenure), I must have taken perhaps a couple of sets. And they were only required when I applied for, well, my passport. In India, passport sized photos have very little to do with passports.

The clamor started the day I landed in Chennai almost a decade back. Checking account. Cell phone connection. Gas connection. Phone connection. Electricity. Home loans. Demat account. Auto drivers. Well, on the last part, I exaggerate. But, you get the point. Everybody and his brother in law wanted a piece of the action. At first, I naively did runs of  6 or 8 prints. Pretty soon, wisdom dawned and I upped the ante to packs of 20 to feed the insatiable appetite.

An aggravating aspect of this matter is that it is impossible to optimize production levels to exactly match demand. Complex algorithms and spreadsheet macros have failed miserably. Which means that you usually end up carrying inventory. Say you do a run of 20 prints. The way things play out, you end up giving 15 of these babies away. A small and odd number get left behind as unused stock. A few months later, you are applying for a permit to park where you work. The conversation with the security chap inevitably turns towards passport sized photos. You go home, rummage through your possessions and come up with nada. Another run of 20 prints is quickly ordered, and soon yet another small and odd quantity is misplaced. And the cycle goes on. It is quite likely that I have hundreds of these pint sized mug shots lying around, mysteriously hidden somewhere in the house.

An amusing aspect has to do with taking of the photos themselves. The rookies (of which I used to be one) tend to shower, shave and wear collared shirts from this misguided belief that these photos are actually looked at. As time goes by, wisdom dawns. Once, a guy who came to pick up a credit card application casually pocketed my photos with nary a glance. And, to add insult to injury, his pocket bulged with photos of other clients. Seeing my 2x2s being subject to step motherly treatment, I enquired as to how he planned to match the photos with the forms later. “Don’t worry, Sir” was the response. Veterans of this game have been known to enter photo studios and  exit in 30 seconds flat with photos in hand. Shave and shower are most definitely dispensed with. The maestros of this game, I suspect, are dispensing even with clothing of any kind.

Last but not the least, one has to touch on the quantities, not an insignificant line item which can dent the household budget. Statistical analysis suggests that the number demanded roughly correlates to the importance of the mission. Bank account app usually calls for two. Demat accounts could be more. Interestingly enough, a lot depends on the agent. Some are meek. You can push them to the edge and get away with it. “I have only two, they dont match and were taken when I turned six”. Others are defiant cowboys. “Sir, I need five or six”. “What the..? Why six?”. After intense nego, you can get some of these Quick Gun Murugans down to 3 or 4. Suspect they are compulsive-obsessive collectors. I can imagine the bragging in the back office “I got 12 out of a poor sod today”. I would also not rule out spot fixing and match fixing possibilities. Perhaps vast sums of money are being wagered on who can collect the most on a given day.

I’ve often dreamt of landing the Bharat Ratna. The highest honor in the land. To do the nation proud. I walk upto the President. And she says “Congratulations on being the first Indian Nobel prize winner in Physics. You have done the nation proud. That new fangled theory of yours that makes Einstein look like a  four year old totally rocks!” I nod and bow graciously, and stretch out the hand, eager to grasp the award. And that’s when she says “Not so fast, buster. I’ll need to see 25 passport sized photos first”. I usually wake up in a cold sweat.