MARK TURIN Indian English The last breath of the Raj



© Mark Turin, 2000

The other day a friend of mine told me about an experience she had on a rail journey in the Netherlands. Boarding an Intercity train at Amsterdam Central Station, she noticed an Indian family on the platform. For anyone with any experience of Indian tourists holidaying outside of India, the sight of a well-dressed and dignified man strolling two metres ahead of his wife (who is incidentally weighed down with all the luggage, shopping, tax free goods and children) is a familiar spectacle. This was one such family. They boarded the train and seated themselves opposite my friend. Before they had even taken off their jackets, out came the snacks. The wonderful thing about Indian families travelling in countries other than their own is that they bring their own home-made and delicious snacks with them, and not only that, but then they share them with everyone else in the train carriage. Much to my friend’s delight, having travelled widely in India, she was offered a pakoda and she ate it with relish. Thus the conversation started. "What is your good name?" and "Are you a domestic of this country?" When my friend inquired (as if she didn’t know already), where the couple were from, the answer came out as simply "Asia". Eager for more information, she asked where in Asia, and was rewarded with a perfect reply. "India…" said the man, "we are from India", then he paused, raised an eyebrow, took a big juicy bite out of his pakoda, and added, more as an afterthought: "And you Madam…are you aware of the presence of India?"

Her account brought memories flooding back of my own train encounters in India, one of which was on the Delhi to Benares overnight express. My travelling companion and I had been sitting in a cramped Second Class compartment for six hours already and it was almost midnight. All evening the man sitting directly opposite had been eyeing us with great interest. Every now and then he opened his mouth as if to speak, but then shut it again without saying anything. Only once we had finally dozed off did he finally address us. "Sirs…", he started, "you are from England, no?" We nodded. "Ahhh, England…" he smiled, as if remembering a good wine, "the land of Shakespeare, no?" We nodded again. "Milton, no?" Again we nodded. "Churchill?" We waited to hear how it would end. "But Sirs, they have all…how shall I say…expired." And with that he sighed, smiled, closed his eyes and promptly fell asleep.