Public Lecture: Salman Rushdie's Hobson-Jobson

Public Lecture: Vijay Mishra



'Rushdie-Wushdie: Salman Rushdie’s Hobson-Jobson'

13. November 2008, 10 Uhr c.t., Geb. C5.3 Raum 120


Prof. Vijay Mishra, Murdoch University, Perth


It is not uncommon to find in Rushdie criticism comments such as the following: ‘[Rushdie’s works are] a paper labyrinth of crosscultural references’ (Clark 2001: 3); ‘[his novels] make the English language express the needs of Indians’ (Kortenaar 2004: 4); ‘[the flexibility of English] allows him to convey both the rhythm and sense of the many different Indian dialects without needing to employ any or all of them’ (Cundy 1996:7); ‘[Rushdie’s writings indicate] those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it’ (Erickson 1998: 144); ‘The inventive impurity of Rushdie’s heteroglot style provides a challenge to the idea of proper English, the King’s English, and therefore to British colonialism’ (Gorra 1997:137). But then we also find: ‘[references to the Western literary tradition] are part of an assumed compact that makes it “easy” to include Rushdie in English department offerings on post colonialism’ (Chakrabarty 2000: 28).


The question which remains unanswered by most scholars, but which is raised by Chakrabarty, is, ‘What exactly is Rushdie able to achieve through his crosscultural references?’ Other questions may be asked. Is Rushdie’s India constructed essentially through a colonial discourse? Is there really a sense in which Rushdie’s inventive heteroglossic semantics signifies the kinds of linguistic competencies an ethnographer would attribute to a native informant? And indeed, what is there in Rushdie which may not be readily incorporated into Colonel Yule’s Hobson-Jobson?


In 1886 Colonel Henry Yule with some help from the amateur Sanskritist and comparative philologist (but really a civil servant) A. C. Burnell, published his vocabulary of Anglo-Indian words. The title given to the dictionary - Hobson-Jobson- by Henry Yule ‘is a typical and delightful example of that class of Anglo-Indian which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular’ (Yule 1986: ix). The example, apart from being quaint and delightful, it is suggested, is the archetype of the processes by which Indian words, largely from the Hindustani, were absorbed into the English language. The archetype goes back to the wailings of Muslims during Muharram, the first month of the Muslim lunar year – ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain’ (419) – as they carry the papier-mâché tombs of these early imams, brothers Hasan and Hosain (d. 669 and 680 respectively).


The gloss given by Yule is revealing but the linguistic process by which the assimilation of the wailing into ‘Hobson-Jobson’ remains unexplained. Although A.C. Burnell read Sanskrit, we are not told that this process may go back to that Sanskrit class of verbs (class 3) where the root is reduplicated: hence from hu, (‘sacrifice’), juhoti (‘he sacrifices’), from d? (‘give’), dad?ti (‘he gives’), from h? (‘abandon’), jah?ti (‘he abandons’) and so on. Reduplication is carried over into the perfect tense too which is formed either by reduplication (kr, ‘do,’ cak?ra ‘it was done’) or periphrastically (budh, ‘awake,’ bodhay?m?sa, ‘he awakened’ where the verb to be asreduplicated to ?s is added before the final termination ‘a’). In the Indian vernaculars, reduplication is legion: ?t?-j?t? (going-coming), ron?-pitn? (crying-wailing) among many others; hence in Rushdie, ‘writing-shiting’ and in Naipaul, ‘paddling-addling’.


One of the more delightful (and less earnest) essays in Rushdie’s collectionImaginary Homelands is in fact a review of the reissue of Hobson-Jobson (Rushdie 1991: 81-83). In spite of the occasionally dismissive prose of the essay (‘the Anglo-Indian language whose memorial it is … is now dead as a dodo’ (88)) which ends with a variation on Rhett Butler’s last words to Scarlett O’ Hara (‘I don’t give a … dam’ where damis, according to Hobson-Jobson ‘the fortieth part of a rupee’ (293)), Rushdie’s excitement with this volume is obvious. What is more interesting is that Rushdie’s own use of non-English expressions takes shape in the shadow of Hobson-Jobson and continues the tradition of a language which Rushdie in this essay has consigned to the life of an extinct species.


This paper critically examines the misplaced enthusiasm of so many critics when it comes to Rushdie’s use of the English language. It attempts to give a more scholarly, dare one say even skeptical, critique of claims made on Rushdie’s behalf by almost every critic (such as those cited in the first paragraph above) that Rushdie gives a new voice to India; that he creates a language which captures in a dramatic fashion the semiological complexities of India; that his use of texts ranging from the Qur’?n and Attar’s The Conference of the Birds to Vyasa and Somadeva creates an insider’s world view not available to say a Forster or a Kipling.


The paper attempts to make a case, beyond grammatical analogy, for Rushdie’s use of primarily Hindi-Urdu (Hindustani) expressions as an extension of the Anglo-Indian Hindustani compiled by Yule and Burnell. Indeed, it questions whether words and phrases such as ‘funtoosh’ (from the Bollywood film 1956), ‘Gai-wallah’, ‘godown’, ‘subkuch ticktock hai’ and even the allusive (except for the native speaker) ‘Rani of Kuch Naheen’ are radically different in their formation from Yule’s entries in Hobson-Jobson. In the Rushdie corpus the specters of a colonial discourse may well be very much alive.