Jaipur, Rajasthan, India -- 07 January 2008 | Permalink

Another commonly-held misconception about India is the idea that English is widely spoken. This is true up to a point, but the reality is that most people's English vocabulary consists of “Hello”, “Which country please?” and “What is you [sic] name?” This falls fairly far short of the ingredients for a compelling conversation. Small children, who have a cargo cult mentality when it comes to foreigners, extend the mix with one or more of “Hello chocolate” (gluttony), “Hello money” (avarice), or “Hello schoolpen” (cunning).

If spoken English is limited, written English is everywhere. It may be that I simply blank out the written Hindi or Marathi because I can't even read the script, much less understand the message, but it seems that English is practically the default for advertisements and even for road safety. Every auto-rickshaw has “Horn OK Please” written across its rear, while no truck tailgate is complete without “Blow Horn” in two-foot-high letters, usually accompanied by other admonishments — “Use Dippers at Night”, “Long Trolly - Wait for Side” and so forth.

Some of the signage looks as if it was done from memory. For example, speed bumps are called ‘speed breakers’, but the words are just as likely to be rendered ‘spee braeker” or similar variations on a theme. Advertising signs are similarly random; one college offered an “English cresh course”, suggesting that the tutor's credentials need some checking.

Advertisements are aimed at an affluent, English-speaking upper class. This makes for poignant juxtapositions as, for example, when you see — directly above a family of five who have spent the night sleeping under a single blanket on the floor of a bus stand — an advertisement for index-linked pensions. The words on the advertisement were in English; the family of five are not the target audience.

The target audience, incidentally, is assumed to be strongly interested in educating the next generation, with ads from competing private schools crowding out practically every other kind of ad, each one claiming to work your children harder and earlier than every other. The last word on that particular mindset had to be the ad that urged the reader to “Discover the joy of making your child study.” That strikes me as a concept that would sound awkward in any language.