Guest Post, Sudha Balagopal: A Foreign Connection


Sudha Balagopal bio photoAs a writer straddling continents, I am fascinated by authors who inject foreign words and phrases into their English fiction.  These international words and phrases, I believe, are helpful in lending credibility to a story. They embellish the narrative, bring authenticity and help transport the reader.

Some writers explain the meanings of such words, either in-text or in a glossary.  At times, foreign expressions are used sparingly; at other times more generously. Some authors repeat phrases for consistency, or as a matter of style. No matter. When expressions from another language are used in description or in dialog, they leap out at me.

Take the case of the inimitable Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s enduring Belgian detective. When I was in high school, he taught me French expressions like mon ami and mon cher. Of course, I had no knowledge of French; still, uttering the words made me feel clever and witty.

Agatha Christie expertly used foreign expressions in creating Hercule Poirot. The detective is overlooked and dismissed because of being foreign, and she used his manner of speaking as a tool to tell us about him.

‘Mon cher, am I tonight the fortune-teller who reads the palm and tells the character?’

‘You could do it better than most,’ I rejoined.

‘It is a very pretty faith that you have in me, Hastings. It touches me. Do you not know, my friend, that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desires and attitudes? Mais oui, c’est vrai. One makes one’s little judgments – but nine times out of ten one is wrong.’ (Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies, Hercule Poirot, Series #9)

Appropriate dialog is a powerful instrument to lend fiction the flavor of a culture or a place. Using the right words makes dialog sing. There’s no big to-do in the way E. M. Forster, in his book A Passage to India, makes use of Indian words.

The first who was in evening dress, glanced at the Indian and turned instinctively away

“Mrs Lesley, it is a tonga,” she cried.

“Ours?” enquired the second, also seeing Aziz and doing likewise.

“Take the gifts the gods provide, anyhow,” she screeched, and both jumped in. “O Tonga wallah, club, club. Why doesn’t the fool go?”

Go, I will pay you tomorrow,” said Aziz to the driver, and as they went off, he called courteously, “You are most welcome, ladies.” They did not reply being full of their own affairs. (chapter 11)

We may gather from the dialog that a tonga is a vehicle, a tonga wallah is one who drives the vehicle. A subtle power play also reveals itself here. The last name reveals that the ladies are English, and Aziz is not. All this from a short piece of dialog.

Not everyone espouses the use of words from another language when writing fiction in English.  In his article, Say ‘Non’ to Phrasebook Foreign Language in Fiction, Daniel Kalder writes,

“Either you render the language in English, or you render it in French. And if your readers are English speakers, then, I dunno, you should probably render it in English. Chucking in a few phrases of first year French adds nothing in terms of meaning and is just daft.” (, July 13, 2011)

Granted, Agatha Christie was not Belgian and E. M. Forster was not Indian. But what if the author writing in English is reflecting a part of their heritage, representing who they are as a people and as a culture?

Nayomi Munaweera’s novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is set in Sri Lanka. She uses terms contextually, a natural exclamation here, a term there, which means the reader connects with the cultural milieu even as the story advances. The two Tamil words she uses in the lines below lend authenticity and adorn the dialog.

Nishan must watch his friends being sent to squat at the back of the schoolroom, arms crossed to grasp opposite ears. As they walk home together, these boys say, “Aiyo, she has two eyes in the back of her head.” And only filial devotion keeps him from replying,” Machang, you should see her at home.” (Part One, Chapter 1)

Foreign expressions are used in descriptive text as well. Take Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who uses Igbo words in her narrative. She brings Nigeria to us, her skill making the prose come refreshingly alive.

The goats wandered a lot around the yard, they wandered in, too, while we cousins bathed, scrubbing with ogbo that my grandmother made from sun-dried coconut husks, scooping water from a meal bucket. We bathed near the vegetable garden, in the space enclosed with zinc left over from the last house refurbishing. Mama Nnukwu would shoo the goats away from the vines of ugu and beans that crept up those zinc walls, clucking, clapping her hands. (Recaptured Spirits, Notre Dame Review, Number 18, 2004)

The reader doesn’t need to know exactly what ogbo is, or ugu. We comprehend the scene. The author has sprinkled in just Igbo two words into the paragraph to make it shine.

Junot Diaz takes it a step forward, knitting dialog and text and sprinkling his Spanish into it. He mixes the ingredients as if tossing a salad,  the sweet and the sour, the crunchy and tangy, the veggies and the berries. His scenes come alive, because of the use of his Spanish terms. The reader is instantly drawn into the vividness of his narrative.

You had to be careful with her because she had a habit of sitting down without even checking if there was anything remotely chairlike underneath her, and twice already she’d missed the couch and busted her ass—the last time hollering Dios mío, qué me has hecho?—and I had to drag myself out of the basement to help her to her feet. These viejas were my mother’s only friends—even our relatives had gotten scarce after year two—and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes. Wouldn’t serve them coffee until she was sure each tácita contained the exact same amount. And when one of the Four was fooling herself she let her know it with a simple extended Bueeeeennnnoooo. ( The Pura Principle, New Yorker,  Mar 22, 2010)

Foreign expressions are connectors. But more than that, they enrich us. Through them, the English language elevates itself, becoming a vehicle to understand other people and cultures—helping us accept differences and celebrate similarities. To authors who incorporate them I say, may you continue to do so.

Guest Post, Sudha Balagopal: How Parallel Lines Meet

draw-the-line-1159036All aspiring writers have heard these two pieces of advice that some consider inane, others gospel: write what you know and write the book you want to read.

What if the two are parallel lines that cannot meet?

Let me explain. Although we spoke a different language at home, the medium of my education in India was English and stayed that way throughout school and college–part of the legacy the British left behind.

My first memory of reading is from a text book called The Radiant Reader. The words tap a rhythm in my brain even today: “Sing Mother Sing, Can Mother Sing, Pat Sing to Mother, Mother Sing to Pat.” From there, our readings evolved, as we grew older, to include stories like Jerome K. Jerome’s Uncle Podger Hangs a Picture.

In life outside school we didn’t often come across names like Pat, Jerome or Podger.

By third and fourth grade I’d expanded my pleasure reading, salivating over descriptions of chocolate eclairs in Enid Blyton’s books. I experienced the adventures of the Five Find-Outers with Fatty (politically incorrect these days, Fatty’s name was shortened from Frederick Algernon Trotteville) and Mr. Goon.

I’d never laid eyes on a chocolate eclair. Nor did the inhabitants of my books look anything like my neighbors who wore sarees and salwar kameezes and ate gulab jamuns instead of scones.

Somewhere along my reading journey, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys appeared on the bookshelf, introducing me to a world different from the British one I’d known so far. Their American adventures were fun to read, but mostly, they ignited envy. The teenaged Nancy Drew drove a car (a car!), solved mysteries and had a boyfriend. Few women I knew drove. If a family owned an automobile, most likely a hired driver or the father of the house drove it.

At school, I absorbed Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and Shakespeare. In my final year I pored over the text book Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, only to fall in love with the gentle, reliable Gabriel Oak.

During summer break, I cowered in my bed while Bronte’s Jane Eyre suffered. I devoured books by Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse which made for an interesting amalgam of mysteries and humor. I wept when Beth died in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which presented a different America from the one I’d read in the Nancy Drew series.

Our English curriculum included few Indians writing in English. My Calcutta school introduced me to the luminous Rabindranath Tagore. His evergreen short story, Cabuliwallah, in which a father and young daughter share a close relationship, also explores the unexpected yet tender connection between people of different social classes—the vendor from Kabul and little Mini. Later, in college, I discovered the unpretentious but humorous and memorable literature of R. K. Narayan, nominated several times for the Nobel prize.

Fast forward decades and I am now a writer. Words emerge from the deep well of consciousness and they must be that way to be authentic. My work might paint a world that’s not familiar to those in the western world. My first collection, There are Seven Notes, thematically links stories against the landscape of Indian classical music.

Thus, the conundrum. How do I bridge the gap between that which I know and that which I read today, have read in the past and will continue to read?

One day, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for perhaps the tenth time in my life, my brain went “ting.” It didn’t matter that the author and I inhabited different worlds. The book touched me and it remained with me. Harper Lee may have written about places she knows, about issues specific to the American South, about race and color and justice, but she also torched a deep truth within me, tapped into what I too know, what I too am familiar with. Blending her truth with mine. What is wrong, is wrong. Justice knows no boundaries.

Neither do human relationships. Scout and her father, Atticus Finch had a special bond. Scout also had another connection, the reclusive Boo Radley.  On the opposite side of the globe, Tagore describes a similar tender kinship between Mini and her father, and between Mini and the man from Kabul.

I pay obeisance to Harper Lee. She made parallel lines meet. That’s how little Mini in Tagore’s Cabuliwallah and Scout Finch in Harper Lees’s To Kill a Mockingbird occupy the same corner in my heart.

Writing, then, is not about geography or the color of the characters’ hair or eyes, about the snow or the heat, about chocolate eclairs or gulab jamuns. Those make up the scaffolding for something larger. It’s about universal truths. That’s what I love to read. That’s what I’d like to know more about.

That’s what I want to explore in my writing.

Guest Post, Sudha Balagopal: Of Indians and English

Teapoy is a six letter word. I’ve used it in both speech and writing. It is a term I’d heard often while growing up in India. Imagine my consternation, then, when a fellow writer questioned this vocabulary at a recent writers’ group meeting.

“I’ve noticed you use the Indian language while writing in English,” she said. “That’s distracting to the reader.”

“Indian? Like what?”

“Like teapoy.”

“Teapoy? But that’s English.”

“No it’s not,” she insisted. “In any case, no one here knows what it means.”

Others in the group chimed in and supported her.

dictionary I thought about that exchange after the meeting. They could be right. Indian words tend to make their way into English. This happens subtly, cleverly, until the usage becomes commonplace. Perhaps I’d become so confused, I couldn’t make the distinction anymore. Like Spanglish, there is Hinglish, a language that is specific to Indians speaking in English.

A person might say, “No, yaar, that’s not the way things are.” The yaar in this sentence is from Hindi and means friend. Definitely a Hindi word.

I decided to look up ‘teapoy’ in the dictionary. Merriam Webster described it as a three-legged ornamental stand, a stand or table containing a tea chest or caddy and used for supporting a tea set; also tea caddy.

I raised my arms up in victory. “I am right, I am right!” I sang. “It is an English word.”

I read further. The word teapoy came from Hindi (and Urdu). Teen pai means three-legs. The first known use? 1828.

My arms came down. They were also right.

How many words had I used in my writing that came from Indian languages? For that matter how many expressions did other writers use that came from Hindi or Tamil or Sanskrit or any other Indian tongue? Teapoy might be one of the more obscure, but there must be others.

I set out to find at least ten English terms that came from an Indian source. The obvious ones, like karma and guru, were easy to find in published work. Others less so. Some, I discovered, are such an integral part of the English language most users would not believe they’d been absorbed into the language from another part of the world.

Take the word pajamas (pyjamas in British English), commonly used in American English. According to Collins Dictionary, it came from the Hindi and means a pair of loose silk or cotton trousers worn originally in the near East. Here is an example of its use in a novel.

The noise and commotion woke up many of the neighbors, who came in pajamas to their windows and doors to watch the spectacle. Lisa Scottoline, THE VENDETTA DEFENCE (2001).

We all know a bandanna is a colorful scarf tied around the head. I’ve always associated the word with Central and South America. In reality, it has closer links to my Indian heritage and comes from Hindi.

Hindi bāndhnū, is a method of dyeing. It is so named because the cloth is tied to prevent certain parts from receiving the dye. Sanskrit bándhana means tying (

He wore a black tank top and white shorts and a red bandanna on his head. James W. Hall OFF THE CHART (2004)

No one would conceive some common words originated in India: like jungle (Hindi jangal for desert forest), khaki (Hindi for dusty, dust-colored) and cushy (Hindi – khush for pleasant). Dekko (Hindi dekhna, to see) and chukker ( from Hindi chakar, wheel) on the other hand are used less often.

Once I opened my eyes to their presence, I saw them everywhere. Here’s a partial list of such words: catamaran, cummerbund, shawl, mango, pukka, jodhpurs, bangle, avatar, thug, bazaar, bungalow, chit and juggernaut.

English has absorbed vocabulary from around the world, adopted them and made them part of its family. I am grateful to the person who challenged my use of the term teapoy. I don’t profess to be a pundit (from Hindi meaning a learned person) but I understand a little more about the presence of Indian words in English. I have also formed an attachment to ‘teapoy’. I will allow it to stay in my writing.