Monday, January 15, 2007

Dialect-schmialect, or, more words, words, words

Two weeks ago, I noted the odd speech patterns H.R.F. Keating gives the characters in his stories about Bombay police inspector Ganesh Ghote. At the same time, I noted a comment from a blogger in India that "This comic device, one of the most-admired qualities of the series abroad, has not aged well."

I am now about 270 pages into Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, and I note with interest that his characters use precisely the speech patterns by which Keating distinguishes his characters. Two of the most noticeable are a dismissive rhyming when a character is annoyed or impatient, and frequent use of the word only after the word it modifies.

Thus, a Bombay (Mumbai) constable, asked what he has found in a murder victim's purse, replies, "Lipstick-shipstick, that's all." Or a newly abstemious political candidate says: "No time now for drinking-shinking." A gangster explains his origins this: "I was born here in Mumbai, in GTB Nagar only, saab."

True, the British Keating used these linguistic devices far more frequently than the New Delhi-born, Mumbai- and Berkeley-residing Chandra. Therein, perhaps, lies the difference: For Chandra, speech patterns are one among a variety of ways to mark characters. For Keating, their frequent use can appear something like a mark of caricature. In fact, I don't think that was Keating's intention. But they do lend the stories a quaint, if not dated, touch.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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