Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Correct Use of Language

Up, and to the British Library to use the records of the India Office. A vast, mysterious and forbidding collection: but then how else could it be given that British control of India produced so complex and Byzantine a structure of government. But I was not looking for government records; I was after finding private letters of a certain individual of some prominence in his day, and to that end I was scouring a particular collection among the IO private papers on a hunch that, as it turned out, was completely wrong. It happens, but in one of those minor pleasures that occurs in research of this kind a mistaken hunch yielded an absolute treasure.

It was once a commonplace to sneer at Babu English, the elaborate, poetic and richly ornate language of the educated Indian. Well the hard-boiled and unimaginative can mock all they like; I have loved Babu English ever since at the Historical Manuscripts Commission I received a letter from Delhi in which I was addressed as 'Most esteemed sir'. And here at the BL, among the papers of Sir Basil Blackett (Mss Eur E397), was a collection of classics; with other things to do, and the meter running, I had time to note down just one, the work of Mr S. V. S. Satyanarayan of Madras, writing to Sir Basil on 3 May 1929:

'Your merits were truly tried tested [sic] in the hot furnaces of London, where no less a man than Lord Birkenhead competed with you and failed to carry the palm of victory.'

And that was one of the more restrained passages! To me it is so unfettered and joyous, as if the writer is revelling in language for the sheer joy of it. It is a fact that we live in an age in which the language of public life has been debased almost beyond salvage by the grim terminology of business, the prevalence of exhausted cliches and an impoverished vocabulary; perhaps we could learn something from Mr Satyanarayan's learning and exuberance.