September 04, 2009

Cycle gap

Observe a traffic jam on an Indian street, and you will find that it tends to follow a complex process of re-alignment over time. It all begins with vehicles lined up bumper-to-bumper. But as the minutes tick away and more and more vehicles enter the jam, impatience mounts and many drivers try to switch lanes to gain an advantage. Others drift lazily towards visible openings, having nothing better to do, and soon all the cars, buses, trucks and auto-rickshaws have interlocked themselves into a complex jigsaw, which will take hours to disassemble. You may think that the gridlock is now complete, but believe it or not, there is still some room left for new entrants. At this point, you will find cyclists blithely weaving their way through the narrow gaps between vehicles to move to the head of the queue.
The second gear is down and as you negotiate a pothole, a grand convoy of three bikes try to slip in on the left. There is just daylight between the car and the parked SUV. It’s whats popularly known as cycle gap. (Confessions of a Magnificent Mind)

(Auto rickshaws) run on three wheels and an engine that is mostly used for mowing lawns in the western countries. Other characteristics are they have a very small turn radius and can be turned in circles at the same spot. They are also known for pugunthufying (entering) and going within a cycle gap (A Gap just as wide to let a Bike Go). (Indian Cities and Riders of the Auto Rickshaw « 18,000 RPM)
'Cycle gap' provides a metaphor in South Indian English for an indigenous brand of opportunism. Where others may give up, a certain type of individual will discover a narrow window of opportunity and try to squeeze through. If he succeeds, chances are he'll also try to pull in all his friends, brothers, parents, uncles and what-have-you after him, and a mad scramble will result, till someone notices and slams the window shut. Hence, the local Chennai idiom, 'to try and squeeze an auto-rickshaw through a cycle gap'.
In Chennai I had the pleasure of taking the auto ride and I was reminded of a local saying "people drive auto in a cycle gap", no, no, now even a bus goes in a cycle gap! (Rattling Communicator)

Red lights and no-entry signs are just meant for learning boards in driving schools, as the popular saying goes we’d even fit an armoured tank in a cycle gap! (Dappan Koothu)
Wikipedia provides a brief (and rather inadequate) definition of this sense of 'cycle gap':
Cycle Gap: Tamil for trying to get things done without anyone noticing it. (Wikipedia page on Madras Tamil)
The following examples illustrate the figurative sense of the term:
See, we are a cycle gap country. If judgements and policies are not watertight and leave a crack in the door for exceptional cases. We will attempt to drive a 18 wheeler through that gap. (Reality Check India)

My cousin was here last week, looking to sneak through the proverbial “cycle-gap” in the hallowed doors of TCS, CTS, Wipro, Satyam and Infosys which would make her the financially pampered, mentally tortured, socially showcased, BIG 5 IT professional. (ExpertDabbler)

June 05, 2009

Gun Throat

Another example of eccentric South Indian English, this one found in Green Well Years, an autobigraphical novel by the artist Manohar Devadoss about growing up in Madurai.
She had a 'gun-throat' and explained to the doctor her 'menses problems' in a voice so loud that the entire household came to know what they were.
If you want to insult a blowhard, call him a beerangi vaya, or 'cannon mouth' in colloquial Tamil. Gun throat is a less pejorative term that describes someone with a loud, thundering voice.
I insist that you switch off your mobile phone. Never will I forget the lowlife who answered a string of business calls throughout The Fellowship of the Rings in a gun-throat voice. (C. K. Meena, The Rules of Movie-Going, The Hindu, May 15 2003) bladder decides to speak up. And not in little whispers either. Nope, this is a gun throat variety of bladder. It screams so loud that you have answer the call immediately or risk some embarrassing one year old suited behaviour. (life through pink colour glasses, November 21 2005)

I have been lucky, I have what people call a ‘Gun Throat’. As soon as I thunder into the microphone, the audience has no chance but to listen! (Shaly Pereira, Look Who's Talking,, September 20 2005)


Rajapart is a piece of Tamil theatre jargon from the 1930s, referring to the lead role in a play. The word mixes Tamil and English: rajapart is the 'king's part', the hero's role in costume dramas staged by the travelling theatre troupes of the time. I found the term in the autobiography of Sivaji Ganesan, the legendary Tamil actor who started out in one such 'boys' company' during this period, and also appeared in a film titled Rajapart Rangadurai later in his career.
In the theatre jargon of those days, I wanted to play Rajapart which was the role of a King. I appealed to my teacher demonstrating to him my prowess at playing this role. Gradually the number of female roles that came to me lessened and I was given male roles, and finally, I reached the status of a Rajapart actor. I was considered one of the most important actors in the troupe. (Sivaji Ganesan, Autobiography of an Actor, ed. by T. S. Narayana Swamy. Translated English edition, Chennai 2007)
Elsewhere in the text, Ganesan introduces the following terms, which illustrate the eccentric manner in which Tamil speakers tend to adopt English words.
Iron Streepart means a very important female part and similarly Iron Rajapart means a very important male role.
Why iron? I've been scratching my head, but the best I've got is this equation: iron=something strong=something very important. Maybe someone out there has a better explanation?

May 18, 2009

Convent/convented/convent english

Convent, n. In north India, a generic term for an English-medium school, usually a girls' school. The usage derives from the fact that schools run by missionaries were the first to use English as a medium of instruction, and they are still considered by many to be superior in this respect. A convent education is a status symbol, something that improves a girl's chances on the marriage market. Hence, convented, an adjective for someone who has studied at an English-medium school, found frequently in Indian matrimonial advertisements. (A Google search should turn up several ads seeking matches for 'beautiful Brahmin convented girls' - there is, of course, no such thing as a Brahmin convent). Convent English describes the affected manner of speech adopted by the 'convented', replete with schoolgirl slang and anglicizations of Indian words.

In modern India, where children were bought and sold for marriage through the newspaper, a girl's chance of a wealthy match improved sharply if she had been to a convent. The scramble gave a new word to the language. A matrimonial ad in the Sunday papers, after describing the bride-to-be as very fair, beautiful and homely (meaning house-trained), clinched the business with convented. Naturally, convents multiplied across the country, most without the trace of a nun, and one of them named, memorably, BLONDIE CONVENT (I. Allan Sealy, Trotternama)

It’s one of the most fabled lines in LSR history, passed down from batch to batch and teacher to student. The matrimonial ads, which after asking for a ‘homely, convented girl’ state categorically and firmly: LSR girls need not apply. That line has been quoted with pride by several women, glorying in the fact that their minds are considered too unconventional to fit in with the typical Indian bride mentality. (Article about Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi in the Indian Express, November 12, 2005)

Now we all know, in most parts of our country, particularly the north, a “convent” is just a general way to describe an English-medium school. In Punjab, you can often find a St Kabir Convent, a Guru Gobind Singh Convent, or some place else, a Maharishi Dayanand Convent. But a Lohia Convent? You name an English-medium school after a man who dedicated his life to throwing English-medium schooling, an instrument of colonialism, out of this country? And you do it in the heart of Lohia-land? (Shekhar Gupta, Indian Express, May 15, 2009)

We are against foreign missionaries but we open money-minting schools with such names as St. John Convent and even Durga Charan Convent. A few years ago a young lady gravely said to my late aunt Hamida Begum, "You have such a large house lying vacant in the country. Why don't you open St. Hamida Convent in it?" (Qurratulain Hyder,'Ignorance is not bliss', The Times of India Sunday Review, July 6 1997)

May 10, 2009

After Ayaram

The Indian Express compiles a lexicon of political jargon for this year's Indian general election. Excerpts:
108 kuien kuien kuien: A phrase popularised by Chief Minister YSR Reddy to remind people of his Rajiv Gandhi Arogyasri Scheme, which involves participation by private sector hospitals to bring medical care to the poor. The numbers 108 and 104 (for cities and rural areas) are what you need to dial for an ambulance which carts the patient to the nearest hospital. The ‘kuein kuein kuein’ was used effectively by YSR to mimic the siren.

Ruler: When Punjab politicians say ‘ruler’, what they mean is ‘rural’. Call it a Freudian slip or a malapropism, but most of the prominent leaders of the state, including the chief minister, say: “Aaj ruler areas vich rally haigi (today there is a rally in rural areas).” The word has caught on: people in these ‘ruler areas’ think ‘ruler’ means village.

Cover: This elections, ‘cover’ means a variety of gifts distributed to voters either early in the morning or late in the night—when it’s safe from election observers and rival party cadres. The word was coloured to mean bribe after voters in some areas received crisp Rs 500 notes recently. Even when the gift becomes saris or tokens for liquor, the question now is: “Did you get the cover?”

Mahal factor: The phrase is often used to underline the importance of the Scindia family in the electoral politics of the Gwalior-Guna-Shivpuri region. When a representative of the erstwhile royal family is contesting, the mahal (palace) factor comes into play directly. When a Scindia is not in the fray, a representative backed by the family, irrespective of the political divide, is believed to benefit from the M factor.

Yeddy-Reddy-Cheddy: This is a reference to the power triumvirate within the BJP in Karnataka—Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, the Reddys (mining barons from Bellary) and the khaki shorts (cheddy or chaddi) of the RSS. The phrase emerged in the opposition Congress camp and was used by former chief minister S. Bangarappa (now in the Congress) in the course of his electoral battle with Yeddyurappa’s son B.Y. Raghavendra.

March 02, 2009

India's Endangered Languages

196 Indian languages are in danger of extinction, according to UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing. Ahom, Aimol, Andro, Chairel, Kolhreng, Rangkas, Sengmai, Tarao, Tolcha are some the languages that are already extinct, according to a report in Outlook, which also provides a map showing the regional distribution of the threatened languages. Essentially, they are clustered on the margins of the Hindi heartland - the mountain regions where Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken,the tribal regions of central and south India, the North-East and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. You can find another report here, and the Atlas itself is available online here.