Syeda Imam

As I forayed into writing for Confluence the subject suggested itself, almost insisting on being the first automatic choice which dwells on on how from all parts of the world, and particularly those of us from the East and the Subcontinent have adopted English as a language of frequent exchange. Indeed in many parts of India which are cosmopolitan, welcoming people from its many different states as far flung as Nagaland and Kerala, English could very well be considered the one common language. Almost every other Indian language, yes even Hindi, may often baffle the Keralite, the Manipuri or the Tamilian participant in an all-India meeting whether of the academic, government or private sectors. This may be dismaying but it is true.

Happily, bringing together all of these sub groups within the country and including the foreigner comfortably – who may very well be part of the exchange – is the language which Confluence too favours. As a result of this natural adoption there is a magnanimous amount of gifting from one to the other. Now I let upon you a barrage of words so do prepare to be indulgent, since the prescribed length of the article does not permit one to stray into embroidery.

All manner of confluence will surface if you cast your mind back to remember words such as jamedar, khansama, ayah, hamal, jamedar, chowkidar, mahout. Naturally the colonial adventurers were looking avidly for domestic help, even before they looked to formalise the ranks among Subehdars and Havildars. Before, of course, bestowing on them the ranks of lieutenants and other more senior, supervisory roles for the Army, the Police and sundry other forces.

Lists of this kind would be legion – with all readers ready to add a smattering of their own. And the sound of each would trigger whiffs of nostalgia both pleasant and vivid, no matter where you grew up in India. And in whichever generation, for that matter. It would apply as much to our parents, whether they were located in the British Presidency States like Calcutta or Madras, Union Territories like Delhi or Goa, or princely states like the Hyderabad, Bhopal, Lucknow, and Mysore of yore.

Interestingly, to pinpoint the origins of the adopted word you could actually trace back its ancestry to countries of the East, near and well beyond India.

Kismet is so much our own favourite (given our predilection to philosophical surrender and Karma as an explanation of all that is inexplicable in this life of ours, we could lay sole claim to it). But, no. It is a Turko – Arabic word that has travelled and quickly befriended our psyche. The rest of the world uses it more for effect, to suggest a kind of graceful helplessness.

Consider Shabash, a handy world much used for a hearty kudos, spontaneously given, literally and metaphorically a patting of the back. It actually derives from Shad Bash, as a simple bravo, an encouragement to the high performer to ‘remain happy’. Though I have read other theories about a young prince having initiated the word, by surprising his father with a prize worthy fencing antic and earning the favour of being named his successor:’ you will be the Shah’. Claims and myths such as these tend to abound.

A Professor from USA’s Columbia University thought he was being booed when indeed the Vishwa Bharati University in Shantinektan, Kolkata applauded his speech resoundingly with ‘Shehba-Shehba’!

Let us wander off and take the less complimentary imports into English: ‘Gherao and Bandh’. These are inconveniences that the British had to cope with when their industrial relations ceased to be benevolent and exploitation took over, right and proper. To Gherao’ is to surround the office of the CEO or MD or the Factory Manager, call a strike on production. And Bandh is the shut-down, so that work must stop until demands are duly met or at least promised to be met.

Watch the hour changing and the pendulum swaying back to the happier borrowings, some titular, some worshipful. From Badhah, Basha, Pasha, to Raja/Rani to Maharajah/Maharani, Nawab/Nabob at the worldly level and Guru (the learned one), Sant (the guide and saint), Pandit used for the holy well-born Brahmin in a higher stratum.. The latter have the superior connotations now so popularly assigned to Sadhus and speakers and Yoga and Vedic experts who are often global personalities, if not stars. Since the Princes ceased to be royalty (thanks to the abolition of the age old Privy Purse) and turned to being cricketers and film stars the appellation as a title has been dropped. Pataudi may be called the Nawab of Cricket, but he was better known as Tiger or Pat, not His Highness. The saints and gurus occupy more space in the news, both in India and in parts of the world thirsting for calm and newer, more serene solutions.

Let’s swing the pendulum again to Badmash (rascal) and Goonda, yet another miscreant. I like to think I am right in saying that the English/American ‘goon’ is a derivative of goonda, whether the dictionary of etymology details it so or not.

It is equally fascinating how even the most fluent often miss some fascinating examples: that the word Admiral is a derivative of Amir ul Behr, quite simply and accurately the Lord of the Oceans, in Arabic. And that the Gulf of Gibraltar which rolls off the tongue ever so easily is a concoction derived from the Arabic: Jabrul Tariq or Port of Tariq – which so succinctly includes the owner’s name. And to think that ‘bash’ is a Turkish frivolity quickly welcomed into English. It was initially used by a Westerner writing the novel ‘Ayesha’ during his sojourn in Turkey, just to work in local flavour.

Garments and their nomenclature from India have been quick to surge into worldwide vocabularies. Whether, Sari, Lungi, Dhoti, Sherwani, Achkan, Nehru Jacket, Guru collar, Pajama (which has a Persian origin from’ pai-jama which is literally legwear) and Shawl from Shaal, then headgear as in Turban (from I guess ‘turra’ ) and Pagri and Shamla. Where does one stop? Confluence readers would have myriad more examples of their own. And would probably discover more as they go along.

And you may wonder why the French chemise and Indian/Persian Kemiz sound similar, but are not the same sort of garment!. You would forgive me for long associating ‘bandana’, on account of its sound, with Spanish. Only to discover that it derives from the Rajasthani Bandhni. Yes, that wildly festive scarf with yellow and white dots resembles pretty closely the gaiety obtained by the tie-dye process, a speciality that brightens up the desert state of India.

And while we are talking headwear it would be apt to touch on our presenting English with ‘Shampoo’ which obtains from ‘champi’ or the oil massage of head and hair that precedes the ‘shampooing’. That too, after all, must be massaged well into head and hair in order to work off the greasy residues of the ‘champi ’!

As I began by saying, this confluence will not cease.



Syeda Imam is, nee Bilgrami, an author, editor, eminent and award-winning communications professional in public service, marketing and advertising. She was a member of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), India, and has authored a book titled The Untold Charminar, which describes the culture of Hyderabad.