Bilingually Yours: The Hindi Lessons By Kipling And Rushdie

Posted on April 10, 2015

By Preksha Sharma

In the past few months, my literary diet has altered itself to include a good nourishment of children’s books. I started with the old classics (available for free on the internet), happily swallowing Tolkien, Carroll, and the sort. In between, I also read Kipling. Why this writer deserves a special mention has a reason to it. I first read The Jungle Book at the age of eight. My judgement then: The book is irksome and, apologies to all Kipling fans, unimaginative.


When I recently read The Jungle Book again, I relished it. I wondered how I had formed such a harsh opinion against the book at the age. The answer, I believe, came from an accidental combination – Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Aatish Taseer’s op-ed for an international newspaper. I acquiesce whole-heartedly with the claim that The Jungle Book is Kipling’s best work. As an eight year old, my disapproval of the writer wasn’t (entirely) whimsical. It stemmed from a particular ‘formula’ the writer had employed while naming his characters in the book.

Many animal characters in The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book get their names from direct Hindi translations of the species of the animal – an elephant called Hathi; the Bandar-Log, literally, monkey-people; or Baloo, an obvious mispronunciation of Bhaloo, and many more. These were not the names of characters; these were names of animals, and that was the main peeve. By the age of eight, these names of the animals were a part of our regular conversations and profanities.

In his recent op-ed in the New York Times, writer Aatish Taseer laments that the English language has ruined Indian literature. Although we don’t really get an insight into how that happened, the article does makes some relevant points. He states, “Middle-class parents started sending their children in ever greater numbers to convent and private schools, where they lost the deep bilingualism of their parents, and came away with English alone.” I agree with Taseer’s observation on shift in language preference, but not to the extent that children “came away with English alone”. I studied around the same time in private schools all over the country, but we stayed strictly bilingual, and it is only recently that my mother tongue, the beautiful language that my parents and grandparents spoke, was replaced by Hindi, and Hindi by English.

I suspect this new-bilingualism was to be at the core of my soured experience with Kipling’s best known literary work. The names that Kipling used, I imagine, were to be exciting for children who were not equally proficient in English and Hindi. Their minds were not stuffed with thousands of references that make it impossible to accept these just as names. For them, Chuchundara was a clever name for muskrat, or Karait, a suitable one for dusty brown snakeling that lies for choice on dusty earth, but for me, these were the local names of species, the musk shrew (and not muskrat) and the Indian Krait. My grandfather encouraged me to look beyond the names and appreciate the fantasy land where animals could talk. But if a talking animal had no name of its own, it was plain dull to me. Picture this: I am telling you a great story of a lion named – wait for it, Lion, who befriends a mouse named, well, Mouse, and they meet a crow named Crow.

Some characters were named after their most pronounced characteristic. I was reading an exciting scene in the The Jungle Book that occurs early on when the Father Wolf and Mother Wolf take their cubs and Mowgli to the Council Rock when Akela, the great gray Lone Wolf, who led all the Pack by strength and… Akela? I re-read. Akela is the exact translation of ‘alone’ in spoken Hindi, a very common and frequently used word that could never pass as a name, even to a kid.

Each time a character was introduced in The Jungle Book, their names were followed by their English translations. Who are we, the Gidur-log [the Jackal People], to pick and choose?” This would irk me, because it was a repetition, and repetitions are boring. I didn’t need to be told that Gidur-log are the Jackal People, or that Lungri means the Lame One. In all honesty, I concluded that this writer thinks that I am an unintelligent kid (fatal mistake), and that made me hostile towards Kipling.

Recently, I was somewhat reminded of my experience with Kipling when I picked up Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life to read out to my cousins. They are 12 and 11. The opening line of the novel introduces us to the city of Kahani, at which both my cousins clicked they tongues. Kahani is one of the most recurring words in their vocabulary. To suddenly imagine it to be a fantasy land because it has a capital K struck as rather unnatural to them. After a long discussion, we made it to the ensuing confusion of Bear, the dog, and Dog, the bear. Within a few pages, my cousins were convinced that the Kahani was an alias for India. The names of the characters, Aag, a man who was quick to anger and slow to laugh, or the river Silsila, thanks to a popular Bollywood number, would not let them believe otherwise. (My younger cousin, not getting the author’s intention, even argued that Rakshit, a popular name in India, was misspelt by the author as Ratshit.) My cousins never finished Luka to lay hands on its prequel Haroun… and the Sea of Stories (which also had the forbidden City on Earth’s invisible, watery moon, Kahani).

I was surprised to learn that Ruryard Kipling was, in a way, ‘deeply bilingual’. In the first chapter of Something of Myself, Rudyard Kipling writes, “In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she (Ayah) or Meeta (referred as Hindu bearer) would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution: ‘Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.’ So one spoke ‘English,’ haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in.” Rushdie is also comfortably bilingual. Did these writers use Hindi to add oriental exoticism to their works to make it appetizing for the Western readership? And does that mean that these books were not meant for some of us? I can’t say.

Early on, in the book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, we are told that all names mean something. Alison Lurie observed in her review of the book that ‘most of the names in the book derive from this language (Hindustani (sic))’. A reader, presumably not knowing Hindi, observes rather frankly about Haroun… on Goodreads, that “… the jokes and play on words aren’t all that funny (you have to know Hindi to get most of them)…” Even for those who ‘get most of them’, these are day-to-day words lifted from spoken Hindi, and are unconvincing choices for names. So be it the land of Gup and the land of Chup, or the Princess Batcheat and the Prince Bolo, Rushdie’s naming remains deceptively simple and deeply allegorical, and also, plainly weird.

I am a fan of Rushdie’s play of words. In Mindnight’s, I cracked up when he introduces the Canine Unit for Tracking and Intelligence; its short form, CUTIA, many would have noticed, means bitch in Hindi. It was intentional and witty. As an adult, I love the allegory of the names Rushdie employs in his children’s novels, but as a child, if I was told that a princess’ name is Batcheat, a name fit for a talk show on politics, I would not believe any part of the story and Haroun… would have been stacked right next to The Jungle Book.

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