Driving around town one sees lots of fair sights, but the mangling of the English language is by far the most entertaining. My original hobby was spotting the things people write on their vehicles, ranging from the evergreen “this is all my mother prayer” to “dunt tuch”; now the breadth of my interest extends to billboards and posters and really everything in between. Need some shafoon? It’s avail at this shop. A pent and shult? You can buy one, get the other free here! How about some chocolate, which promises “an amorous bite” (quite literally, ‘pyaar ka niwala’, I presume)? I’m sure we could all do with one of those.

So whether you’re a lounge lizard smacking some balls around at a “snookar club”, wearing said pent and shurt, or a lady serving “puff patteze” at tea, we’re all appropriating the English language and turning it into something quite novel. When it’s done out of a genuine lack of knowledge, one can smile at it—our first language isn’t English, and neither is our public schooling system English-medium. So when you spy “chonklate millukshake”, “foon call” or “hay gurls”, it’s really people spelling words they use all the time phonetically. Of course, one would hope that they would maybe take the time to ask someone how to spell it, or whether the word has an English equivalent at all, but chances are maybe they did ask, and their advisor thought that ‘phone’ really is spelled ‘foon’. Or they just didn’t ask, because certain words have become such an indelible part of our everyday lexicon that I suspect most people do not even notice it any more. Petrol, for example. Everyone is putting “pitrole” in their car tanks. If you were to ask for “gaari ka tail” you’d be given a canister of the stuff that coats pistons.

Thanks to our lingering colonial hangover however, speaking the language is permanently associated with upward class mobility and prestige, and that’s where the element of mockery creeps in. Call it the Meera Syndrome, if you will. Meera’s learning how to speak English and then not being very fluent is the font of endless jokes and hilarity. It’s so funny when she says “ess tee Michell” instead of “St. Michael”, because of course everyone on earth must know how to pronounce the name of a fusty British brand, the same way everyone in town can say “Louboutin” or “Givenchy” with perfect French flair! Meera’s desire to learn to speak English stems from a desire to be seen as more refined, classy even. Given our constant self-consciousness when it comes to our personal identity, it is no surprise that this weird embarrassment translates into plain nastiness when it comes to someone who makes no bones about wanting to present themselves to the world in a different way. Most of us wouldn’t be caught dead speaking Punjabi in front of our friends, even if we are perfectly fluent and comfortable speaking it at home, because of the popular association of the language with village people. The word “paindoo” is literally derived from the Punjabi word “pind”, or village. It used to only mean someone from a village, but to the modern urban-living Punjabi, being associated with the village can be social disaster.

And so we really, really want to speak English, by hook or by crook, because we want the status associated with speaking it. We want to be proper shehris. We’d rather stumble along saying “thanks God the boys played well” instead of fluently speaking the language we think and dream in because, quite simply, we will appear uncouth, primarily to ourselves. It’s a lose-lose situation though; if you speak English badly you’re the butt of all jokes. If you don’t speak it at all, you’re a bechara. All over the world people speak their native languages with pride, and if they are in situations where people won’t understand, they have a translator. There is no shame in not speaking English with the right accent, or struggling with pronunciation. It is an admittedly tricky language to master, even for native speakers. It’s great to expand one’s skill set, but not at the expense of one’s sense of self. So wear your pents with pride, and try not to be too notty.