Reflections of a language-wala
IN a recent report on the clout of Bangalore (soon to be Bengaluru) in the techie-nerd-BPO world, the Times of India's U.K. correspondent talked about the fear and respect that the city's "IT-wallahs" on the make cause in the hearts of the competition.
In my opinion, the all-encompassing, multi-useful and user-friendly suffix wala, was inexplicably ignored while other loan words from Indian languages such as pundit, guru and avatar found a niche in the active vocabulary after catching the fancy of English-speakers all over the world.
The suffix is more common in the languages of northern India, where it is generally spelled vala. Both wala, walla and certainly wallah are anglicised versions, given the problem that most Indian speakers of English have in enunciating the `w' (for example, `what' sounding as `vat'). The spelling that the TOI correspondent used, a throwback to the days of the Raj, was probably inspired by the delightful 1965 James Ivory-Ismail Merchant film "Shakespearewallah" based on the story by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (take note of the "vala" in her name) about a family troupe of English actors in India. They travel around the towns and villages giving performances of Shakespearean plays.
Vala (or one of its varieties) is quite common a surname among the Parsis. It must have come, I assume, from the trade or the occupation of the person. Hence, Baltivala (a hardware/ iron merchant), Chandiwala or Sunewala (silver or gold smiths). Rusi Canteenwala, an acquaintance, remembers hearing that his maternal great-grandfather might have managed a military mess circa 1857. Some one up in the family tree of Keki Daruwalla, the Indian poet who writes in English, or Bejan Daruwalla, the astrologer, could have been a purveyor of daru, Farsi for wine. The Greater Mumbai telephone directory will have a listing of Parsi surnames as diverse and colourful as the occupations in that city.
This practice is found in many cultures. The origin of the Anglo-Saxon surname Goldsmith (as in Oliver Goldsmith, the 18th Century English-Irish playwright, novelist and poet), lies in "smith", which means a worker in metal (tinsmith), or a person who forges iron (blacksmith). Since "jhab" in Ruth Prawer's married name means grass, reeds or a cover or covering material of the kind, or thatch, her husband's forebears, if their occupation was thatching or if they lived in a thatched dwelling, might have been called Thatcher in Britain.
Similarly, from an etymological point of view, a Parsi adopting a place-name as his last name became Punewala; those in diaspora became known as Adanwala, Rangoonwala and Africawala. London, Paris and Berlin are common Jewish surnames. Some examples of Anglo-Saxon surnames derived from general topographical location are Norman, Moor, Hall, Chesterfield, Street and Wood. The same is found in several varieties in India. In northern regions, villages named for a person and vice-versa, will include the suffix, as in Raiwala or Dalanwala. (Bejan Daruwalla, who has reportedly moved to Toronto, Canada, would be keeping up the tradition if he ever chose to call himself Torontowala).
English language dictionaries in the days of the Raj were likely to have an entry under walla and wallah; one such work designated him "as a merchant, an agent, a worker; a fellow. Competition wallah, a member of the Indian Civil Service admitted by competitive examination." Hanklyn-Janklin (1992), Nigel Hankin's funny as well as informative guide to Indo-British, describes a box wala as a "... man (in) the second division of the European civil society (government officers formed the first), the businessman. From a pretence of affinity with the itinerant trader who travelled from bungalow to bungalow carrying his wares in a large box. Within the business class there were also gradations: those in commerce, seniors in mercantile firma and bankers, for example, were of the highest status."
The deployment of this Hindi-Urdu suffix, derived from the original Arabic meaning proximity or belonging to, is loaded with complexities (which Urdu usage isn't!). It can be a noun, verb or adjective. Some examples: tongawala, rikshawala (the driver of the carriage), chaiwala (tea seller), gorawala (the fair one), gaonwala (villager), gharwala (man living in the family, husband), policewala (a police agent). In Farsi it becomes an honorific, as in huzur-e-wala and janab-e-wala (esteemed sir).
Now, about why the suffix should enjoy a wider currency. It is more malleable than the English noun/ verb "type" when describing a class or group of people or things that share particular qualities or features, or someone having the qualities or features of the group; even characteristics. And it does not carry a pejorative association, as could be the case when calling someone a "media-type" or a "military-type". Does a Washingtonwala not sound rather less fraught with sins than a "White House-type"?
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