Of course, you have not heard of Tonguelish, but it is very real and has many dialects. The usual dialect that I use is a mixture of English and Tamil. If I’m speaking with an Indian who is not a Tamilian, I mix in Hindi instead of Tamil. At home, we speak the Tamil variety.

I might say:

“Time-uh ippadi waste pannuradhu is wrong, yenna? Please go and do something useful.”


“Wasting time like this is wrong, what (do you understand)? Please go and do something useful.”

And the accused might reply,

“Mama, break-ey edukka vidduradhilla, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,’ dhaaney?”

which means

“Mama, you do not ever let us take a break, Doesn’t all work and no play make Jack a dull boy?”

Ziegenbalg learnt Tamil when he came to India 300 years ago and began to translate the Bible. William Carey came to India and translated the Bible into several Indian languages. My friend Brent Rogers who works in Japan could read Greek and Hebrew as a young man and was learning Kannada when I first met him; now he has learned Japanese. I believe learning languages is a gift. I have to believe this or hang my head in shame. English is the only language I can read, write, speak, and think in.

Because we did not live in Tamil Nadu when I was growing up, I did not get to learn to read and write Tamil. But we spoke it at home. I used more English in my Tonguelish with my father and more Tamil with my mother. My mother tried to teach me the Tamil alphabet during the holidays, but I did not make much progress. It would make me feel better if you inferred from this that she was not a good teacher.

For about five years in childhood, I spoke Bengali. This was when we were in Calcutta in West Bengal. A year after we moved to Bangalore, my father introduced me to a Bengali person. We were all horrified that I could not remember a word of the language. But for those five years, I really did speak the language like a little pro. I even remember the conversations I had with my best friend Mamtoo. His real name was Joy Choudhry; our fathers worked in Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. I lost touch with him in December 1973. I know I spoke Bengali with him.

Bangalore is the capital of Karnataka where Kannada is spoken. I had very little opportunity to hear Kannada being spoken. I heard more Chinese being spoken in the house where we lived first and more Urdu being spoken in the second house. To this day, I know the Kannada script and can read it. It is possible to read a text in an Indian language without understanding a word because all Indian scripts are phonetic. (If someone is fed up of my calm demeanour and gentle ways, you could try suggesting that English is phonetic too). I heard Kannada being spoken during the annual youth Bible camps. For a few nights after I returned home from camp, I could speak Kannada in my dreams. I was very nearly there, I think.

Of all the Indian languages that had the misfortune of coming my way, I spent (read ‘wasted’) the most number of years learning Hindi. The outcome has been so pathetic, that it deserves another post.

English opened my eyes to things beyond the scope of my personal experience. Miss Fritchley once had a club in school called the Magic Carpet Club, where we read and reviewed books. Yes, books, and particularly English books, took me around the world long before I left India for the first time less than two years ago. Most important of all, God used English to make Himself known to me.

Books, words, poems, and prose, in English, have been my companions all my life. Here is a poem I learned when I was four or five. I could relate to the poor child in the poem very well. In fact, after the initial delight that understanding the poem gave me, I remember not finding it very funny.

Betty At The Party

“When I was at the party,”
Said Betty, aged just four.
“A little girl fell off her chair,
Right down upon the floor;
And all the other little girls
Began to laugh, but me –
I didn’t laugh a single bit,”
Said Betty seriously.

“Why not?” her mother asked her,
Full of delight to find
That Betty – bless her little heart –
Had been so sweetly kind.
“Why didn’t you laugh, my darling?
Or don’t you like to tell?”
“ I didn’t laugh,” said Betty,
“ Cause it was me that fell.”