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Prayaag Akbar is Associate Editor of The Sunday Guardian

The words we speak and the worlds we make

Language is a telling indicator of the manner in which any society is patterned. In India, some of the terms and phrases we use speak of age-old discrimination

A view of Bandstand, Bombay

was walking down a rain-whipped Bandstand with a friend at a little past twelve the other night when she asked me something.

"Tell me a good book to read?"

Perhaps it was the rain, or the ocean to our right, or the young couples we were crossing even this late at night, but the scene reminded me of the opening sequence of Manu Joseph's Serious Men, when the author manages to drop you straight into the midst of Mumbai's teeming, beaming heart.

"Have you read Serious Men?"

"No. What is it about?"

"Well, in a sense it's about Bombay. But it's also about two men, a scientist and his peon," I said. A beat, while I evaluated my statement. "Well actually, it's about a peon and his scientist."

We both laughed.Image 2nd

There are two aspects of this exchange worth commenting upon, both linked to how systematic and casual denigration is in our everyday language. Serious Men takes a close look at Indian society, and one of the admirable things about it is that Joseph manages in no ham-handed fashion to show India through its most ubiquitous prism, caste. Ayyan Mani, the peon, is a Dalit – Joseph's emphasis on this aspect of his identity is vital because it is his identity's most vital aspect – the determinant of his future, his present and his past, and also, crucially, the determinant of the course of his son's life. When I was recommending the book, in that brief moment we take to make these decisions before we speak, I chose not to use the word "Dalit" to describe Mani. I thought about this later and realised why: it was a night untouched by worldly concerns, and I did not want to misrepresent the book, a dark but humorous tale. In that instant, I decided "Dalit" would conjure a sense of pathos far from what I imagine was the author's intention.

Ayyan Mani, the peon, is a Dalit. The labels we use so casually, "Dalit", "chamar", "bhangi", "peon", they have all become almost interchangeable in upper-class parlance. That is how far we have sunk, or how little we have risen

But in another sense I also did not need to use the word "Dalit". Think of the peons you know, the ones that serve tea in your office, walking from desk to desk, cabin to cabin, pouring out in tiny doses the caffeine our vaunted industry surfs on. In my experience, especially if they are young men straight from the village, there is a meekness to their demeanour, eyes cast downward; too often there is surprise and suspicion when they receive the smallest kindnesses. I have never asked any peon I have worked with the caste he belongs to, but to me, in the urban life I lead, far from highway construction and jhuggis, this interaction – peon and office-worker – is the small intersection between my life and the life of the Dalit. I did not use both "Dalit" and "peon" because I did not need to.

The labels we use so casually, "Dalit", "chamar", "bhangi", "peon", they have all become almost interchangeable in upper-class parlance. That is how far we have sunk, or how little we have risen.

he second aspect relates to the reason we both laughed at that moment. We laughed because of the unusualness of the second construction I'd made. A peon and his scientist. It is not the near Nobel-winning scientist but Ayyan Mani, and his aspirations for a better life for his son, that are the central explorations of this novel (something I really liked, though a few arbiters of the caste discourse in India felt it a distasteful portrayal). I changed my statement second time around to reflect that centrality. But to reverse the possessor in the sentence that way (from scientist's peon to peon's scientist) struck our ears immediately as a great absurdity, one that provoked a short, embarrassed laughter.

In the first chapter of The Razor's Edge, Somerset Maugham writes, "It is very difficult to know people and I don't think one can ever really know any but one's own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they are born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learned to walk...The mess English writers make when they try to do this is only equalled by the mess American writers make when they try to reproduce English as it is spoke in English."

Maugham is pointing to one of the great problems of the novelist: capturing the cadence of a geographical space, its inherently prescribed mores and its most intimate patterning. The language we speak is always – always – the subtlest of reflections of the life that we see around us. It gives indication of basic societal understandings; those things we accept as givens. In India, it is only natural for a scientist to own a peon. But for a peon to own a scientist – now that is laughable.

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