Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Learning Punjabi, or, An Englishman's Adventure in the Raj

Public domain image from Library of Congress,  Flickr Commons

In 1883, John Murray published a "Handbook of the Panjáb, Western Rajpútáná, Kashimír and Upper Sind". Not only is the potential traveller given useful information such as not to pit his tent in Bagh (let's just say there was a reason it was named for "tiger") and the truth about Kashmiris ("false, ready with a lie and given to deceit"), but he is also equipped with a short vocabulary and list of useful phrases in Punjabi and Sindhi.

First, the Englishman as taught to count and name the days and months. Encouraged by his newly found linguistic ability he immediately seems to want to address more complicated topics, because he is taught the words for "atom", "ancestor" and "whirlpool". Being English, he will naturally want to talk about the weather and so he's taught to exclaim: "fog!" and "hail!" (likely followed by the appropriate hand gestures; something that will surely make him a social success not only in Punjab but in Kashmir and Upper Sind as well). He is also taught to explain that he has indigestion (always a problem when travelling in the tropics) and if it gets worse, he may draw attention to his condition by shouting "cholera!" On the other hand, if his delicate English bowels manage the shock of being confronted with a whole new continent, he can now order a wide selection of foodstuff; from a meagre "broth" to a full "feast".

However, it isn't until the list of phrases we really see what sort of man we're dealing with.

No sooner has he decided to disembark the P&O ship before he starts:

"I want to go ashore. Is this your boat? Will you take me ashore? What will you charge? These boxes are all mine. Put them in the boat. Is the surf high today? Is there much current? How long will it take to land? I want a palanquin. Take me to the hotel. Which is the best hotel? Take up the palki. Put it down. Put it in the shade."

You get the picture. Apparently, this Englishman never shuts up. He's a walking, talking list of demands. Just listen to him having his tea:

"I like it strong. This is not sweet enough. I like it weaker. Put plenty of milk in. Don't bring cow's milk but buffalo's milk. Do you call this milk? There is more water than milk. Don't smoke the milk."

His thirst quenched, Mr Englishman complacently goes on:

"I want bearers to Allahabad. What must I pay? Must I give largesse? Tell the bearers their payment depends on their conduct. If they go quickly they shall be well-paid. Have done with your smoking and go on. As you value your place there will be a torchbearer at each set. Make sure he has an abundance of oil for each stage."

That last one confused me and I admit I leapt to all sorts of unsavoury conclusions (nudge, nudge) until I read in David Gilmour's The Ruling Caste that back in the day when you travelled by palanquin, there would be a torchbearer running ahead of you with a torch fuelled by coconut oil. Now, if he ran out of coconut oil, you'd obviously all be stuck somewhere in the deep Indian night without any source of light whatsoever, so I'm guessing Mr Englishman is trying to prevent that, because, you know, the torchbearer himself wouldn't think of this. He's only a professional torchbearer and all, but, gee, he cannot be expected to have the razor-sharp mind of an Englishman on his first visit to India.

Source: via Yoshay on Pinterest

As a paternally-minded colonial officer, our Englishman also takes a profound interest in the health of his household. Therefore, he learns to ask - possibly the torchbearer, who knows - things that any good employer needs to know about his hirelings:

"Are your bowels regular? When were your bowels moved?"

What, your boss never asked that? He must not be taking his responsibilities seriously!

Anyway, the cheerful Englishman slash Amateur Physician is now ready to make a diagnosis of his poor servant's condition. Guessing wildly, he tosses out: "Gout. Hunger. Indigestion. Inflammation. Asthma. Jaundice. Madness. Measles. Ophtalmia."

Never mind which really, because the Englishman only knows the word for two treatments anyway: "emetic" and "amputation". If the one doesn't work, I suppose he shall have to try the other.

At the end of this trying day, we can imagine our Englishman sitting down to relax over a glass of wine. It starts innocently enough:

"Give me a glass of wine. Is there red wine or white wine?"

But before long he is once more furiously taking charge of the situation:

"Don't fill the glass so full. That is enough. Bring me a tumbler of water. Cool the wine with salpetre. Ice the water and the soda water."

Even retiring, he keeps up his endless chatter: "Is the bed clean? Has any sick person slept on this bed lately? What was his ailment? Is this a healthy place? Are there any bugs, fleas or other insects? Is there any epidemic in the village? Is there smallpox, cholera or fever?"

I don't know what he suggests to do if there is, since he apparently doesn't react to the answers. One shall have to assume that our Englishman isn't so much worried about disease as he is merely talkative.

Finally, silence reigns over Mr Englishman's surroundings. He is snoring; his huge moustaches moving gently with each rumbling sound while he sleeps the deep sleep of the righteous, safe in the knowledge that surely his servants must be in awe of his his wonderful linguistic skills and that his continued journey through the Panjáb, Western Rajpútáná, Kashimír and Upper Sind will indeed be a pleasant one.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...