Last night, I was watching Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai’s interview on TV. He speaks in an American accent! Two years ago when I went to Karachi, every cool dude I met in T2F was speaking in an American accent. The artsy place in Delhi where I live – Hauz Khas Village – too has become a ‘Yankee hang out’. Artist types still come but the ageless rich have infiltrated in large numbers. These people look successful, cocky and aggressively happy as if they are residents of Los Angeles, the city of eternal sunshine. These people have great bodies and they are plushly underdressed; they speak accented English among themselves and broken Hindi with the auto-rickshaw drivers; their biceps are tattooed with slogans in Hebrew; they always have at least one white friend; they are constantly laughing and screaming and exchanging hugs. They seem to be in a state of permanent vacation.
I’m only slightly exaggerating.
Recently, a new night club opened near my home. Three bulky bouncers in black would stand outside, their eyes scanning every visitor. Each time I tried going in, my courage failed. Feeling seedy, I feared what if I was refused entry? I don’t have an iPhone, my jeans brand is of Indian origin and I can’t speak English with an accent.
Two years ago, I’d settled in the village hoping to be inspired by its quiet loveliness. I have written about this place in these pages earlier too. Snuggled towards the deep end of a semi-wild park, the village used to be visited by those who were into monuments, or who were taken in by its listless boutiques, curio stores and restaurants. The villagers rented out their rooms for cheap. This was a ghetto of kurta-wearing painters, longhaired guitarists and aspiring novelists – many spoke in Hindustani and that was no judgment on their cool quotient. Trying to build the persona of a starving writer (actually I always had money for food), I felt at home in the village.
But now, I feel out of place. The village’s easygoing bohemian character is being beaten black and blue. One painter who has a lake-facing studio has been asked to leave. The landlord is giving it to a restaurant chain at a rent that is four times higher. The village’s sole secondhand bookstore hasn’t opened for months. The monument-facing apartments are furnished for foreigners, Non Resident Indians and anybody else who can pay a fortune and can speak accented English.
Meanwhile, my landlord has called me in the evening. Is some white American eyeing my monument-facing room? Am I being served with an eviction notice? Will I have to move to a ghetto where no one speaks English? May be I could shift to Dr Ubaidul Aleem’s neighbourhood. I met him a few days ago. He needs me.
Dr Aleem was watching TV placed beside his desk in his medical clinic when he told me, “My dream is to speak fluent English” – a pause followed here – “… and correct English.”
Dr Aleem, 40, is a bachelor of Unani medicine and surgery from the city’s Jamia Hamdard University. His clinic is in Chiniot Basti, behind Sheila Cinema in Paharganj, central Delhi. Named after a district in present-day Pakistan, the basti was started by Partition refugees. Today, it has migrant labourers from Bihar who make leather bags and footwear in the area’s sweatshops. When they fall ill, they come to Dr Aleem’s clinic.
Dr Aleem, whose forefathers have been in Delhi for centuries, speaks flawless Urdu. A man of literary inclinations, he quotes Urdu couplets in ordinary conversations. Isn’t it enough to excel in that language alone? Why is he obsessed with English?
“Besides doctor, I’m also in legal profession.” Hearing Dr Aleem’s flawed English gives a sense of that language’s elusiveness in a land where it is highly esteemed but is not the first language of its people. “Every morning I sit in Delhi High Court and work for causes pertaining to Muslim community. There, majority of problem solving authorities belong to upper class who speaks only English and that is why English speaking is very much necessary to take your problems solved.”
Framed photos decked the clinic’s walls: Dr Aleem with Punjabi singer Daler Mehndi; Dr Aleem with Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit. A large poster of the Swiss countryside was pasted on the wall behind his desk.
“You can say that I want to learn English to hide my inferiority complex. It is the tendency of every Indian that he wants to be a good English speaker. If I’m not a good English speaker, then the inferiority complex is there. This inferiority complex is because of our system.”
Pointing to the television, Dr Aleem said, “Very big example of inferiority complex is in front of your eyes. You see a idiot box and see the coverage of the programmes hosted by Barkha Dutt and Karan Thapar.” Dr Aleem is referring to two of India’s most influential television newscasters who conduct interviews and talk shows in English. “On the other hand, see the Hindi news anchors. Difference is always there. The gentry that watches the English news programmes is always top class. I was invited twice to be a part of the audience in Barkha Dutt’s show but I did not go. My English is bad. What if I was insult?”
Dr Aleem who went to Anglo Arabic Senior Secondary School, Delhi’s oldest educational institution, has been winning debating competitions in Urdu since he was in 3rd standard. “My problem is I think in Urdu and Hindi, not in English. In 2006, I go to British Council and do a 3-month capsule course in spoken English. The classes were two times a week. The fees was Rs 7,000. In the end of the course, I was still same.”
What, according to Dr Aleem, is wrong with his English?
“First, I can’t explain myself what I want to say according to my wish in English. But if it comes to explaining myself in my language, then I can explain myself better than millions of people.”
Coming back to his dream, Dr Aleem said, “I think I can achieve it. I need some good friends who speak good English and I need some time with them. I can learn from them.” Dr Aleem, don’t worry. My Hauz Khas days are numbered; I’m coming near your place. I will teach you tip-top English.
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.