By Rudy Singh Jun. 14, 2016
High-flown language may have developed as a means of officialdom to isolate itself from common folk but thanks to our feudal hangover, we continue to embrace it in our daily lives.
We humbly request the pleasure of your gracious presence on the auspicious occasion to shower the newly-weds with your kind blessings.
I had almost put away the invitation but something made me pick it up again and read the sentence above slowly and carefully. It was the most extraordinary sentence, yet completely de rigueur for wedding cards. These people, whom I barely knew, were begging, nay, prostrating themselves before me, requesting me to attend the event that marked the end of their son’s carefree existence. Yes, he would forevermore have his whiskey with half-soda, half-water, and full guilt.
But enough of chauvinistic marriage tropes. The marriage wasn’t really the thing here, achieved, as it was, by a cosmic sleight of hand or “the Grace of the Almighty”. No, the real deal was me and my “gracious presence”. Why, they would be absolutely distraught if I didn’t show up. I was planning to go just for the butter chicken and gulab jamun served with ice cream. Going to a wedding is like visiting a restaurant where you don’t have to pay, but only have to tip a couple who thought it was a costume party and have come dressed as chandeliers. Now I obviously had to pack in my “kind blessings” as well. And a means to shower them. Perhaps, a “health faucet” of some kind.
In our country this sort of exaggerated, sugary-sweet politeness isn’t limited to wedding cards alone, but extends to all formal occasions and official communication. “Respected Ma’am and Sir”, “Honourable so-and-so”, “I humbly submit”. An alien race judging us solely on the language of formal discourse would conclude we were the most peaceable, polite, and pacifist society in the galaxy. If they decided to visit the most hospitable place based on language they would show up in Uttar Pradesh. Needless to say, within minutes of arriving they would be divested of their flying saucer by gun-wielding legislators, roundly abused by eight-year-olds for landing in the middle of their cricket pitch, and lathi-charged by the UP police.
There is an inherent insincerity and hypocrisy about our formal communications and it is inevitable that this influences our behaviour and ways of thinking. For all our outward politeness we are fairly seething inside; something we’ve built up over centuries. In an absolute monarchy with constant power struggles and intrigues, politeness must have developed as a survival tactic. You simply could not afford to get on anyone’s bad side, because you didn’t know when you might need someone’s help. It pre-supposes that work will never get done purely on merit and that you will be at someone’s mercy.
This perhaps reinforces what social scientists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson propounded in their Politeness Theory of 1978. The theory states that people have a social self-image that they consciously project and try to protect. They called this sense of self-image “face”. According to the theory we all have a positive face and a negative face.
Positive face seeks affirmation and approval of our self-image by others. Negative face is that part of our personality that doesn’t like to be imposed upon. In life, situations arise that may threaten either one of our two faces. Brown and Levinson theorise that politeness is a strategy to deal with precisely such potentially “face-threatening actions”.
We’ve gone ahead and inherited British extravagance and hypocrisy in official language but we certainly have not inherited their sense of humour.
The “positive face” and “polite language” then seems to be an insurance policy of sorts against an uncertain and potentially threatening future. But this is not how this kind of language came into being. High-flown language may have developed as a means of officialdom to isolate itself from common folk. Artisans and workers used, and continue to use, a direct and efficient form of communication. Ostentatious language became both a symptom and a tool of power. It was prevalent in Brahminical society, medieval India, and institutionalised in British India. It was only in 2012 that President Pranab Mukherjee finally dropped the customary prefix of “His Excellency” while addressing the President or governors of Indian States (replacing it with “Honourable”). To this day when a Government officer asks you to “write an application” (in triplicate) it is generally a euphemism for “grovel”.
Nowhere is language more long-winded and absurd than in our courts of law. The entire setup is theatrical. The principal players wear weird black capes; a Superman-as-Hamlet type outfit. One guy gets to sit on a high chair and is called “My Lord”. A plaintiff has to submit a “prayer” and await judgement. The judgements pronounced by My Lord can be mind boggling. The following is the first sentence of a 268-page(!) Supreme Court judgement on the law of criminal defamation delivered a few weeks ago: “This batch of writ petitions preferred under Article 32 of the Constitution of India exposits cavil in its quintessential conceptuality and percipient discord between venerated and exalted right of freedom of speech and expression of an individual, exploring manifold and multilayered, limitless, unbounded and unfettered spectrums, and the controls, restrictions and constrictions, under the assumed power of “reasonableness” ingrained in the statutory provisions relating to criminal law to reviver and uphold one’s reputation.” HOLY SHITE! I’d rather read Ulysses (otherwise known as the greatest book no one’s ever read).
Whenever I, by some mischance, encounter a “judgement”, I feel something akin to a hand-blender whirring inside my cranium, turning my brain to mush.
We’ve gone ahead and inherited British extravagance and hypocrisy in official language but we certainly have not inherited their sense of humour. John Bercow, Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons, also doubles up as a comedic talent formidable enough to rival fellow countryman John Oliver. On YouTube, Speaker Bercow can be seen calling an MP “honourable gentleman”, “excitable fellow”, and “cheeky chappie” in the same sentence. In fact, the British Parliament as a whole seems like a group of people who have taken the Bard’s words, about the world being a stage, to heart. The proceedings of the UK’s House of Commons are, in general, the most entertaining farce one can hope to see, but they would be considerably more agreeable if they didn’t have the undesirable side-effect of lethal bombing campaigns and war.
So is there any hope of us ever saying what we mean and meaning what we say? My friend, serial entrepreneur, corporate monk, and life enthusiast Sunny Narang certainly thinks so. He feels that the linguistically disingenuous class of Indians are facing a very real challenge from two disparate emerging classes. One is the strongman/politician/criminal who is too badass to bother with social niceties. They know that power flows out of the barrel of a gun, influence, and the sackfuls of cash in the back of their Toyota Fortuner (the Land Rover Evoque is for their kids).
The other class is the young professionals, entrepreneurs, and innovators who are too busy with their work and ideas to bother about social equations, favours, and graces. (These are people who might call the aforementioned “health faucet” a “bum gun”.) They are the people who juggle a job, kids, a hellish commute, and still make time for a candlelight vigil against an injustice. These are people who are not that bothered about where they, or anyone else, comes from but are interested in where they are going. These are the people who junk polite hypocrisy, not for rudeness, but for decency and I’ll happily join them.
Right after I wash the wedding card glitter off my hands.
Rudy Singh is an independent filmmaker, photographer, poet, and the president of the Film and Arts Guild of Uttarakhand. He is a serial meditator and the founder of Naini Photofest.