Kalpana Mohan is a writer who presently lives in California. She has won the New America Media prize and the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club prize for her columns in India Currents magazine. Her first book, Daddykins, a memoir about the last two years with her ailing father, was published in 2018. She has recently come out with the book “An English Made In India: How a Foreign Language became Local”, in which she explores various aspects of Indian English— as lingua franca, colonial bequest, the language of the elite and those who aspire to elite status. The book also delves into the myriad Indianisms found in the English used by a large percentage of Indians, and the growing importance of Indian English in a world of many Englishes. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with the author in an exclusive interview, where she talks about her latest book and her writing journey, and also gives some droolworthy book recommendations for our readers.
Please tell us more about yourself and your writing journey.
I’m a product of India (Chennai/Kerala’s Palakkad), East Africa (Tanzania), France (Paris) and North America (Silicon Valley), meaning that I’ve spent formative years in these places. I have a degree in English literature and a diploma in journalism; my postgraduate degree is in computer science. I worked as a software developer for almost a decade in San Jose, California, before I realized that what I really loved to do was to write.
In 2000, when I was 39, I began life anew as a freelance writer. I was a generalist, for the most part, until I began writing columns for an Indian-American publication. Strangely, the place that gave me the most validation, aside from the magazine, was the much-vilified Facebook. There, I began to write stories about my daily life. My short, frequent posts resonated with my readers and I saw how readers wanted to read honest, relevant writing about the world around them.
Some of my Facebook posts about my father whenever I spent time in Chennai (taking care of my father) led to what would become my first book published by Bloomsbury India, Daddykins: A Memoir Of My Father And I.
What inspired you to write on the topic of Indian English and the myriad Indianisms to be found in the English used by Indians?
The idea of a book on India’s English came to me from the publisher, Aleph Book Company. I had been writing a monthly column on Indian words in the English lexicon for India Currents Magazine (circulated in the western region of the United States and in Washington D. C.), and the idea from Aleph did seem to be an extension of my work. I knew, however, that I wished to go about the book in a more expansive, layered way.
Indianisms in English and the humour of Indian English were just two of the things I wished to talk about in a book on the subject of India’s English. I wanted to tell the much larger story of an alien language taking root in an ancient country with its many literary traditions. I wished to find out more about which people employed English and why and how, and also try to understand what English meant to the people of India. To accomplish this, I also wished to meet diverse people who would help me tell that story.
‘An English Made In India’ begins with the lines from Derek Walcott’s ‘Tropic Zone’— “This is my ocean, but it is speaking/ Another language, since its accent changes around/ Different islands.” Why did you choose these lines to begin this book?
I’d read it in an issue of The New Yorker a long time ago and I just loved the imagery in it. It seemed so appropriate as an opener to my work. Here we were, speaking a language that was spoken by many countries that were part of the British Commonwealth, yet each of us in the colonies spoke it with a different tang and even those of us in one homogenous entity imbued the language with a distinct stamp. I felt Walcott’s lines really encapsulated our individuality and our identity in a poignant and succinct manner.
You write in the book— “There is little doubt that Indian English is powerful—and temperamental. One might even say that it resembles the car steered by James Bond. It looks and drives like any other car but its fire can be seen only with use.” Can you elaborate what you mean by this?
Like Bond’s car, there are little widgets and handles in Indian English that don’t exist in normal English. The use of the word “only” with a particular manner of saying it is a classic instance of how Indian English works. The use of “only” is accompanied by a certain tone of voice which is probably not heard anywhere else in the world (as in “He’s like that only”).
Then there are euphemistic injunctions on the road in some towns such as “Commit no nuisance”. We know the power of these orders, especially when they’re accompanied by pictures of a deity.
Expressions such as “do the needful” and “kindly” are so enmeshed into Indian life that they hold special meaning and power to locals. There’s no further explanation needed; a nice bottle of brandy or a few crisp notes may help and the person at the receiving end may, in fact, do the needful.
India’s English takes on the colour of India, its kindness and compassion both, as well as its chaos and crookedness.
This book entailed a lot of research. How much time did you spend in researching and writing of this book?
I spent a lot of time reading literature on India before I began working on the book; I could never finish reading all that I wished to read. I believe I spent at least three years in the travel, research and writing of this book but I was also working simultaneously on my first book, Daddykins, and had several revisions due for it. By the time I submitted the revised manuscript of this book to my editor in May 2019, I was two weeks away from my daughter’s wedding.
This book also takes us across India’s diverse locales and cultures, and is a lot like travel-writing. Tell us more about your writing process for this book. Did you write while travelling or did you collect snippets and write them later?
I wrote a lot while traveling and I also collected a lot of information that I wove in later. I’ve found that it’s critical to capture my feelings about a place by writing there and then and also by maintaining a diary and capturing a lot of pictures and videos.
What’s on your current reading list?
It includes ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela, ‘Uncle Swamy: South Asians in America Today’ by Vijay Prashad, ‘A Lesson Before Dying’ by Ernest Gaines, and ‘Oranges’ by John McPhee.
Can you recommend five books from any genre, for our readers to add to their reading lists, that you particularly cherish?
- The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
- Ghachar Ghochar, Vivek Shanbhag (in translation from Kannada)
- The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
- My Days, R. K. Narayan (memoir)
- The Assault, Harry Mulisch (in translation from Dutch)
Do you highlight passages or jot down phrases that you like in the books you read? If yes, can you recall a recent favourite phrase/passage?
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”― from Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’.
Finally, where do you think Indian English is headed in a world of increasing multilingualism?
We’ve already begun seeing India-centric words entering the Oxford dictionary (Aiyo, Arrey Yaar, Churidar and Bhelpuri are examples). We will see many more, I’m sure, as people mingle, exchange ideas, eat and cook food from other parts of the world. This is inevitable, of course. I think Indian English will be shaped even more by American and other Englishes; just as Indian English of the late 20th century took on aspects of the language of the Raj and Britain. The emigration to and interactions with other parts of the world in the last half century will most certainly continue to shape Indian English.
Oh, also quick literary word associations. Tell us the first book that pops into your mind when you read these words.
Childhood— Richie Rich (Harvey comics)
Indian English— Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan
Caribbean— Miguel Street by V. S. Naipaul
Winter— Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
The book ‘An English Made In India’ by Kalpana Mohan has been published by Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.