The English Way with Words

This is a response in the form of a satirical poem, on the British Council's earnest efforts to celebrate its 70th anniversary with 70 English words of Indian origin that are a part of the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it comes to the dictionary,
It is good to remember history.

The year English begun making
Its way into Oxford’s first edition,
The rani of Jhansi went to war
To stall the Company’s expedition,
She fought for her people, while
The Company knew annexation.

Words clashed like swords, they
Fell like bodies bathed in blood.

Ghalib cursed the country’s fate,
Of lives dragged through the mud.

The war of tongues was won, by
Victorian English with a gun.

We became a colony of bees, our
Queen lived across the seas.

It took time for the British to learn
We were already a civilisation.

Also read: Poem: Statue of Unity [Thus Spake Sardar Patel]

Vidyasagar, once denied entry for
A banquet, in dhoti-kurta, came
Back accordingly, to feed his suit.

It took time for the churidars, and
The pyjamas, to enter the world
Of civility accorded to jute.

Did the cummerbund’s entry
Into the Oxford dictionary,
Improve the status of workers?

Or were the sahibs smoking the
Cheroot in bungalows, happy
Playing the role of precursors?

Did the choice of the word ‘loot’
Include the trillions that were
Drained away to British pastures?

Or does civilised irony of colonial
Crimes fall shy of such gestures?

Neither a raja nor a mogul, not the
Most detestable mantri, yaar, can
Match the thuggery of British Sarkar.

Also read: Hanuman, the Ninth Author of Grammar

The lessons of Kipling’s Jungle Book,
Where Mowgli defeats Shere Khan,
(Wonder if he’s a Bengali Tipu Sultan?),
Offers, unlike Orwell’s Animal Farm
(Where he predicts a communist Czar)
A justification of the Empire, facing
The bunch of brown, lawless langurs,
And remember Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the
Protective mongoose, saving English
Skins from fear of the Naga, till their
Bodies opened their eyes to oriental
Charms and learnt the benefits of yoga.

Kubera, the treasurer of Hindu gods,
Also had a mongoose, that stole gems
From the snakes, and spat them out.

Our mongoose is your golden goose. 

There is no nirvana, if the ego is fixed
On the maya of wealth, no mantra
Can help cure such greed, no shawl hide,
No guru help you heed. We live
And die by our karma alone, if you
Believe the Buddha, not a wily pundit,
You may escape history and the myth
Of origins: English or Sanskrit.


The 70 words:

Bandana; Bangle; Churidar; Cummerbund; Pashmina; Pyjamas; Shawl; Chit; Gymkhana; Khaki; Palanquin; Polo; Pukka; Tiffin; Bungalow; Chintz; Cot; Lacquer; Shampoo; Tank; Veranda;  Blighty; Calico; Cashmere; Doolally; Dungarees; Jodhpurs; Jungle; Mandarin; Mogul; Pundit; Purdah; Swami; Thug; Yaar; Avatar; Dharma; Guru; Karma; Mantra; Nirvana; Yoga; Atoll; Catamaran; Cowrie; Dinghy; Godown; Gunny; Jute; Cheetah; Langur; Lilac; Mongoose; Myna; Patchouli; Teak; Cheroot; Choky; Coir; Cushy; Loot; Punch; Roti.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His book, Looking for the Nation (Speaking Tiger Books, 2018) has been published recently.