English by Association

It was business.  The company had sent their guy from mainland Noakhali to liaise with Situ’s distributorship.  He thought he was doing it tough in Hatiya, without unabated electricity, without all the mod-cons.  There was a big chair for the office in which only he sat and from there, in manner and clothes, and not least with his preference for the English language, he sought to put his stamp of town-man company-man quality on display, presumably for the islanders to take benefit from.  Although he was Bangladeshi, he spoke only in English and on that account Situ responded only in Bangla.  He showed some degree of sympathy about it: he must have known it can be hard for people living in the deep islands to polish their English.  It happened while I was in Sydney: he didn’t imagine Situ’s English by association.

Situ’s English, what are the adjectives?  One could say interesting, unique or poetic.  I usually refer to it as nice.  Understand: it’s not a criticism.  Until I can rattle off Rabindranaths in Bangla I’m in no position to criticise, and over the years he’s learnt a great deal with little specific assistance from me, in part because sometimes it felt to correct him was only ruining his particular English version.  Why should he conform to the more widely established norms of the language when he was creative enough to make his own?  For example, Situ has a fondness for verbs that would seem to invoke the principle of ‘why use only one verb when several will do.’  Phrases like ‘I am understand’ and ‘it can be happen’ were his signature phrases for many years and as I certainly have no aversion to verbs what did it matter if he was a little liberal in their application?  Yet still I foolishly drove them to extinction in the name of correctness and now they are absolutely missed.  His English is not as nice as it once was.

I appreciated too his having adopted his own grammar system and more than that, his talent for word discovery.  ‘Languages have thousands of words in them,’ he used to say, ‘so is it so strange if I should discover one?’  It happens also in Bangla, and when he teaches me a new Bangla word I have to ask, ‘is that one in the dictionary?’  Sometimes the answer is, ‘not yet.’  Playing with language: it’s a Hatiyan, a Noakhali thing.

In the days before the company sent their man it wasn’t only English that was in the foreground.  There was also Chinese.  It was at the time I was headed for Taiwan that Situ so kindly offered to teach me a few words, and he wasn’t going to let the minor fact that he didn’t know Chinese stand in his way.  ‘Chìng chó,’ was the word he discovered for ‘hello’.  He taught that.  ‘But what if I get to Taiwan,’ I asked, ‘and nobody understands your Chinese, what will I do?’  ‘China is a big country,’ he replied with confidence, ‘there are many variations.’  We at least started to greet each other with a hearty chìng chó in the days before that departure.  For us it became basic Chinese, though I confess I was much too shy to try it out for real, in Taiwan.  Better to leave it as Hatiyan Chinese.

It’s not only me who has respect for Situ’s English, in HatiyaHHH.  On hearing us talking, on knowing we are friends, it takes some bravery for any of the locals to challenge his English.  Where he gets the grammar wrong even in the company of those better qualified or with more experience, it’s easy for them to doubt their knowledge, because I understand him.  In the village at least he’s earned a reputation for having superior English: there are souls who think he’s somewhere up around, as they would say, a double-Masters PhD. level.  I think his English is even nicer than that.

It’s not that often foreigners make it to Hatiya.  Some, like those young Dutch women, pass through as part of their N.G.O. duties, and when they perchance stopped in the local market in our village, the Bengali N.G.O. workers accompanying them sought out Situ.  They were having trouble communicating with the Dutch, they told him, and asked if he could bring his superior English to their aid.  Flabbergasted and embarrassed, Situ met the Dutch and did his best.  I’d wager there were a few too many verbs involved.

On another occasion he was busy in the local market when a couple of locals arrived by Honda from the main town, Ochkhali.  It was a hospitality emergency.  ‘Andrew’s friend is there,’ they told him excitedly, urging him to go with them.  Situ was puzzled.  Surely he would know if one of my friends was on their way to Hatiya.  On arrival they took him to Hotel Singapore and led him upstairs to where ‘my friend’ was staying.  He knocked and after a moment a young Japanese girl cautiously opened the door.  ‘Do you know Andrew?’ he asked.  She was afraid to see a stranger inexplicably standing there.  ‘Which Andrew?’ she replied.  ‘Okay, I am understand,’ he would have said, and apologised.  Situ told the girl’s self-appointed local well-wishers not to disturb her further, that she was scared and as a random tourist, they should let her enjoy Hatiya and Nijhumdwip in peace.

‘You are the only English-speaker I can understand,’ Situ used to tell me and it proved true the day I put him on the phone to speak with Val, one of my friends from Ukraine.  She is an English teacher but as is to be expected her accent is influenced by the usual velvety Ukrainian-ness, and it’s never easy on the phone.  After a rudimentary hello-hi I took the receiver.  ‘He was really difficult to understand,’ Val said honestly, and afterwards Situ said, ‘can you really understand her?’  He was amazed.  Extra confusion may have arisen from her dogged willingness to follow the established grammar forms she’d studied at university.

The sun had set by the time I arrived in Hatiya again, after Taiwan.  I hadn’t seen Situ yet; he didn’t know what day I would come.  I was just near his office when I saw him ahead on the road.  I let out a full-voiced ‘chìng chó’ through the darkness.  ‘Is it really you?’ he called.  I was back.

But it was years later I first met the town-man, company-man.  He still had his big chair.   Situ, who had never uttered a single English word he finally learnt, had an Australian friend, and we talked with fluency, be it perhaps of a form unrecognisable elsewhere in the universe.  I am understand.  He was dumfounded.  Perhaps the islands weren’t so remote after all.  He was a little nervous to speak his English after that.

More recently I studied French in Dhaka, it can be happen, and on seeing my text book Situ decided French was really rather easy, just like English with a few extra letters and odd-sounding words thrown in.  And so there were text-messages, there still are on occasion, in Hatiyan French.  ‘Yo la starta sour la Noakhali,’ he will send.  It means, ‘I’ve started out for Noakhali,’ even if the world over there are no other French speakers to recognise that particular sentence.  France: how many colonies did they have?  There has to be quite a lot of linguistic variation in it.

With Situ's studious training I was set.  After that, how could language be a problem in Taiwan?  But of course it didn't start there.  Many years earlier came the man on the train, at the start of things, and many years before that came the university of walls, curtains and furniture.  Yet even that wasn't the start...

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: English by Association

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