It must have been a decade or more ago that a conversation at a dinner party prompted me to reflect on complicity in colonialism/imperialism. I drafted a blog but never posted it. Every few years I would have a look at the draft, tinker with it, and then move on. Now I think it's about time to put it out there - nothing all that revealing, but all the same worth posting:
I have thought quite a lot recently about complicity in colonialism. I once said at a dinner party how surprised I was by the number of friends from the Home Counties who had someone in the family’s past who had done something in India – and in my upbringing I couldn’t think of anyone who had an India hand among their antecedents (apart from perhaps a bit of war service). I then added that the north was less complicit in the Imperial project.
This drew a vehement snort of derision from a black feminist present. And it has made me think –
My maternal great-grandfather from Belfast was a merchant seaman who sailed the world, my mother grew up with the Hindi-derived Glaswegian term ‘peely wally’, her father worked in those hubs of Empire Harland and Wolff and then the Govan shipyards and ended his working life as a foreman in an engineering factory in South Africa.
On my father’s side, one family member spent time in Argentina, my grandfather’s woollen factory was built around export (particularly to the Gulf - I remember collecting the Saudi postage stamps) and when it closed, the machinery was parcelled off and sent to India. My father had war service as a trainee pilot in Rhodesia.
I joined the World Service, and went out to India (pith helmet metaphorically in my baggage) to work for the most Imperial of news services, and came back with a PIO card and and what would once have been called a bibi (aka Anu). Much of my historical research and writing has been about Kashmir - even though I don't speak or read Kashmiri or Urdu.
So I can hardly say that Empire didn’t intrude into my and my family’s life.
This is the first time I have scanned a tea towel, and while I have high hopes of living quite a while yet, I truly believe it will be the last.
But I couldn't resist sharing this reference to the term 'peelie-wally' - which any regular readers of this blog will know has exercised a compelling attraction for me, see here and here.
It's a remarkable Hindi loan word (it means 'the yellow one' or 'the yellow thing') which has entered vernacular Scots, meaning - as the tea towel explains - feeble, thin, ill looking (or a particlarly anaemic cup of tea, my Glasgow-born mother once told me).
Sorry if you think this is 'blether' (talk foolishly or too much, according to the tea towel), but I think it's 'muckle' (large, big, great) interesting - and I'm just trying to be 'couthie' (sociable firendly, sympathetic).
I've blogged before about the Hindi-derived Scottish term 'peeli wali' meaning weak, washed out, off colour. Here's a slightly different nuance from A.A. Gill in today's 'Sunday Times':
'Apparently some Fifa honchos are terrified of the British press digging up scandals and skeletons;' he writes, 'makes them come over all peely-wally.'
This suggests losing colour, or going yellow, because they are fearful or weak-kneed rather than unwell (to recap, peela or peeli is yellow in Hindi). But it feels an entirely appopriate usage. Over to you!
LATER: And another reference - in the Guardian's g2, 4th October 2010, as an example of Dundee dialect. '"Yer lookin' affy peely-wally th' day" (translation: "You're looking terribly pale today.")'
'Peeli Wali' has re-entered my life - bringing back a keen and warm memory of my mother and my daughter together. Let me explain. 'Peeli wali' in colloquial Hindi means the yellow one. When my daughter was a baby, and we were all living in Nizamuddin East in Delhi, Hindi was her language. On one occasion, when my parents were over visiting, I told Samira to look at the yellow ball, the 'peeli wali' ball.
'Andrew, surely that's not Hindi', my mother said. 'Peeli wali, I haven't heard that since I was growing up in Glasgow'. And she told the remarkable story of how in the working class corner of Glasgow where she lived until she was about nine, 'peeli wali' meant someone who was off colour. As I recall, she told me it also had a second meaning - a very weak cup of tea (which was also known as 'Jenny PC', or 'Jenny pee clear', though my mother would not wish to be associated with such vulgarity, at least not in print).
This sense of connect between popular Glaswegian dialect and my daughter's very basic Hindi fascinated and delighted me. I wrote about it at the time in an Indian news magazine. And in the past week I recounted the story to a friend, and Indian-born US academic, when we met for a drink. His wife is a student of language, and a specialist on the collision between English and India. And that's how the issue has all come to life again.
There is a fantastic book from the Victorian era, a dictionary of sorts, which captures Hindi and other Indian language loan words which became used in Indian English. It's got the unforgettable title of Hobson Jobson. But 'peeli wali' isn't there - I suspect too informal and plebeian for this rather grand project.
What I probably said to Samira all those years ago was: 'Peeli wali ball dekko!' Look at the yellow ball. Dekko, of course, is another Hindi word which has found a place in vernacular, but not formal, English. 'Have a dekko', meaning 'have a peek', was a phrase I grew up with in Yorkshire, without having any sense of the word's origins.
This is in Hobson Jobson, after a fashion. Not 'dekko', but the much more stylised 'deck' - from the same root and with the same meaning. It makes me wonder, though, how much of the Hindi that (I imagine) British soldiers and seafarers brought back with them from India still has to be find a chronicler.
And thinking back to the 'peeli wali' incident, it makes me realise just how inter-connected the world was long before the current era of globalisation.
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