‘Mind Your Language’

Last week, rummaging through my rather disorganized study, I came across a lined foolscap sheet with half faded writing. As I recognized the document, I was transported back in time to a remote Dak Bungalow in Central Punjab, where the leading light from a nearby village, under the erroneous impression that I was someone important, was pressing upon me some sort of a manuscript and orally bombarding me with a list of woes that belied his wide girth, silk kurta and expensive footwear. I had never been at a loss to read and write Urdu, but the text in my hand completely stumped me. Nonetheless, I must have said the right words, since my visitor left in a satisfied state of mind. On my return home, I showed, the ‘petition’, to my sister (a retired Professor of Urdu) requesting her to decipher, what turned out to be one of the most flowery pieces of ‘literature’ that I have ever encountered. While this particular paper was scribed in Urdu, it is when similar applications are composed in English (with the intention of pleasing the official being addressed) that ‘dictionary and thesauruses’ are well and truly ‘violated’, in what could be a naïve interpretation of Bacon’s famous quote “To speak agreeably to him with whom we deal is more than to speak in good words or in good order”.

Nonetheless, the discovery of a relic from my past motivated me to take a closer look at how we continue to address those placed above us in private and public organizations. I found that the language of such correspondence had not undergone much change. To prove my point, here are some gems from the memoirs of Lord Curzon, who was Viceroy in India from 1899 – 1905. An aspiring claimant to the throne of a native state sent this to the ‘Viceregal Office’. “I wrote to Mr. A_____ to procure me interview with your Sublime Lordship. Although he is very aptitude, theological, polite, susceptible, and temporizing, yet he did not fulfilthe desire of the Royal blood. When your susceptible Lordship was at the Judge’s Bungalow, I wrote again. What I heard of your superfine Lordship’s conduct, the same I have seen from the balcony of my liberal Highness father. Your inimitable Lordship returned the complements of thousands of people that were standing on the street, but my fortune was such that I could not play before your sumptuous Lordship upon my invaluable lute, which will be very relicious to the ear to hear…. I hope that your transient lordship will keep your benevolent golden view on the forlorn royal blood to ennoble and preserve the dignity of His Highness father in sending the blessed letter of the golden hands.”

At the other end of the social scale, a poor tiller of the earth expressed his feelings thus. “Respectfully sheweth – That your honour’s servant is poor man in agricultural behavior and much depends on season for staff of life, therefore he prays that you will favour upon him and take him into your saintly service that he may have some permanently labour for the support of his soul and his family; wherefore he falls on his family’s bended knees and implores to you of this merciful consideration to a damnable miserable like your honour’s unfortunate petitioner. That your lordship’s honour’s servant was too much poorly during the last rains and was resuscitated by much medicines which made magnificent excavations in the coffers of your honorable servant whose means are circumcised by his large family consisting of 5 female women and 3 masculine, the last of which are still taking milk from mother’s chest, and are damnably noiseful through pulmonary catastrophe in their interior abdomen….”

More than a century later, we continue to elevate government officials, when addressing them in writing, with words like ‘Izzat maaab, Janaabe aali, Huzoor e wala, Huzoor ka iqbal buland ho and Aapka Khadim etc’. In doing so we inflate not only egos, but forget that those at the receiving end are public servants, serving us and receiving their monthly packages from our taxes. We have somehow mixed up our interpretation of politeness, courtesy and respect with courtly fawning, sycophancy and simply put – ‘buttering’. The blessed day we untangle the two, we shall regenerate our individual and collective dignity as members of a great nation.


The writer is a historian.

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