Will you believe me if I say that I watch Nigella Lawson's TV cookery programmes for the language content rather than the hostess’s admirable chest and habit of licking her fingers? Or that I watch BBC’s Top Gear for its hosts’ English rather than the expensive cars and tire smoke?
No? I didn’t think so. Well, both statements are at least partly true. Because I have also paid attention to the important things, I can tell you the ingredients of most of Nigella’s dishes. They are: butter, flour, cheese, chocolate, sugar, cream, biscuit crumbs, chorizo sausage, sherry and... things like that. I have also paid attention to the cars on Top Gear: for instance, the Bentley with an engine taken from a Second World War Spitfire fighter plane, and any number of Aston Martins, Bugattis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris and other powerful creations.
But I’d venture a guess and say that nobody would have paid either of these shows as much attention if they didn’t also offer some entertainment to the language centres of the human brain. Sure, both shows are good to look at, and neither is apologetic about its appreciation for things fattening or bad for the environment. Along with these lowbrow reasons, however, is the fact that hearing language used in new ways in otherwise familiar settings (kitchens, cars) produces a good feeling, a feeling that here is something that I didn’t know, that I can use. Perhaps you are in the habit of inventing apparently silly new phrases to express your state of mind, like “I feel coffee-esque, let’s go have a cup” — well, thanks to these Englishmen and women on TV you will learn that this can be a legitimate and even respectable use of language. Then you can set off to explore this new aesthetic. Just think of the way Nigella tells her readers, in one of her cookbooks, to “stagger across to the oven” with a heavy baking tray, or the way in which Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson assesses the “Jaguariness” (said slowly, gutturally and with exaggerated lip movements) of the latest Jaguar. You know what they mean, but you’ve never bothered to describe it before. And there it is: some ineffable quality, in words.
Want more? In the UK Daily Mail, a reviewer of one of Nigella’s books followed her recipe for a chocolate mousse that was “shown standing all pert and quivery in a pretty white cup, a lick of dark-brown naughtiness standing to attention”, and complained that his came out “plop, slop, plop into the ramekin”. If that’s not called being under the influence, I don’t know what is. And when a Koenigsegg sports car, from a Swedish company of that awkward name, was raced by Top Gear, and its name had to be written on a time card, Clarkson expressed the name’s difficult-to-say-ness by adding a dozen consonants to it. Now one really can’t say the name without facial contortion. It’s funny and silly — but also true, and this is a satisfaction to the viewer.
Perhaps it is just Nigella’s book-lined kitchen that has turned my head, not her “playful peas” and “whiskery ginger”, or Clarkson’s delightfully digressive and laddish (and secretly literate) car columns in the London Times. But to my mind, this delight in drawing language into more than one sensory dimension makes it more effective, and far less boring. Why would that be a lesson not worth learning — especially in India, where most of us who speak in English do so badly, or boringly, as if we were composing an affidavit rather than talking to real people?
Indians are absurdly fortunate that they can be multilingual every day, speaking a mother tongue, and someTimes a father tongue, and the local language, and Hindi, and English. This is a great gift in a homogenising world. But there is a price, and the price is that very few of us who have a little education ever really inhabit any one language so thoroughly that we can play with it and still be serious.