Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In defence of the brinjal

I notice that Genetically Modified Foods have made a comeback on the news front. It is reported that the European Commission which had blanket banned the stuff is now toying with the idea of allowing its member states to decide what they want to do about it. It appears that scientific evidence is piling up in favour of these technologically interfered with foods and who are we, the non-scientific community, to question such evidence?

Jairam Ramesh will again be in a quandary. Because newspaper editors are saying we can’t lag behind Europe. We mustn’t appear to be anti-science. The last time he was put in a spot, he got away by h’mming first and hawing later, which gave television newscasters and talk show anchors much scope for debate.

I was never personally involved with the debate. Brinjals are not a hot favorite in my family so their future shape, colour, taste and side-effects are things not likely to exercise its mind. But in a distant kind of way, I was on the side of the non-interference with Nature brigade. It was an instinctive, uninformed reaction but there it is. This is not to say that I am not open to being convinced that stuff like BT brinjals will be the best thing that happened to our poor suicide-prone farmers.

However, when this great debate was on I did get caught in a verbal imbroglio that had to do with the electronic media’s ignorance about an important part of the issue, viz, the pronunciation of the veggie’s name. I reproduce here the situation in which the debate took place and the twists and turns that it took in the hope that it will reach the ears of TV newscasters and help them mend their mistake in future discussions.

The debate began in the middle of a small lunch of old and new retired members of the department of English, Elphinstone College. One side of the dining table was engaged in a discussion about whether they got Rs 260 or Rs 288.30 per month as salary (when they got it at all) in those misty old days of yore, and about which year it was when the gap between this and the Rs 450 that the much envied lecturers at private colleges used to get closed with a bang and government college salaries galloped way ahead of the field. It was a low-volume discussion into which a voice from the other end of the table made indignant ingress. "Will someone please tell me how "brinjal" is pronounced?"

I shall have to resort to dramatic dialogue from this point on to give readers a sense of the quick, razor sharp exchanges that followed. In keeping with much modern playwriting, debaters will be named after their states of mind or as plain numbers.

Indignant: I mean how have we always pronounced brinjal?

Everybody together: Brinjol of course!

Voice one: Except when it is preceded by BT on television. Then it is "brinjle"

Indignant: That’s just what I’m angry about. Why? I mean why? If it's always been brinjol and I've always pronounced it brinjol, why should it suddenly become this thing called brinjle?

Everybody: Absolutely.

Indignant: So then?

(Stumped silence)

Voice two: It's Anglo-Indian

Voice three: It comes from the Portuguese.

Voice four: That's not Anglo-Indian.

Voice five: When did the Portuguese eat enough brinjols to influence the Brits with their pronunciation?

Voice one: They lived in Bombay. Bassein and all.

Voice two: The French call it aubergine, you know. Never never brinjol.

Voice four: Exactly.

Indignant: Never mind the French. And never mind the Portuguese. Have we not always called it brinjol?

Everybody: We have.

Voice five: But the Americans never say brinjol. For them it is....


Voice five: You've taken the very word out of my mouth. Eggplant.

Indignant: So where is binjle coming from is what I want to know. It’s not in any of my dictionaries.

Voice three: I told you it’s from the Portuguese.

Voice four: What's with you and the Portuguese? Why are you promoting them here?

Voice one: Perhaps we should look it up.

Indignant: I’m telling you I did. I was so disturbed. All my life I've called the darned things brinjols and suddenly they're brinjles. But imagine, they are not in Daniel Jones nor in Websters!

Voice five: You should have looked in Hobson Jobson

Voice four: (to Six who has been silent) You know the origin of that don't you?

Voice six: Of brinjols?

Voice four: Of Hobson Jobson.

Voice six: (Vaguely) Yes. Ya Hasan! Ya Husain!

(Stumped silence)

Three voices together: What's the connection?

Voice One: With brinjols?

Voice Two: With Hobson Jobson. I mean where's the connection between Ya Hasan Ya Hussain and Hobson Jobson?

Voice Six: Muslims chant Ya Hasan Ya Husain during Mohurram.

Three voices together: So? What's the connection?

Voice Four: The Brits heard Ya Hasan Ya Husain as Hobson Jobson.

Voice three: See? The Brits have defective ears and defective tongues. They must have misheard and mispronounced the Portuguese original as brinjols.

Indignant: Well we took our pronunciations, for better or worse, from those defective tongues. Where does going back to originals get us?

Everybody (more or less): Nowhere in particular.

Voice One: Perhaps I could help. You say you consulted Daniel Jones and Websters. What about Oxford?

Everybody: Ah Oxford.

The debate petered out inconclusively. But since I was Voice One, I felt obliged to follow up on my suggestion. I came home and looked up my Concise Oxford. And this is what I turned up.

Brinjal: (Pronounced brinjol as in "saw". Alternatively brinjol as in "hot"). The word comes from Portuguese "berinjela" which comes from the Arabic "al-badinjan".

“Brinjle” doesn’t even get a look in. I hope TV newscasters will do a dumb vegetable the favour of calling it by its right name when they next discuss the pros and cons of Genetically Modified Foods.

3 comments: - Explore Indian blogs said...

Its genetically modified pronounciation... and news readers are right :-)

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