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Speaking pukka

‘I cannot endure a swell, even though his whiskers are pucka’.
G. O. Trevelyan The Dawk Bungalow (1863)

The word pukka enjoys an unusual status in Britain both as a current slang term and a dusty relic of the Raj. As a London slang term, pukka means first-rate or excellent. The word rose to prominence over a decade ago, when it became one of the catchphrases of the TV chef, Jamie Oliver. Since then, a number of British companies have adopted it in their trading names: Pukka Pads, Pukka Teas, even Pukka Dating. The word’s fashionable makeover is all the more surprising given its former stuffy associations. The pukka sahib of the Raj is a conformist who plays by imperial rules, a type ruthlessly satirized by E. M. Forster in A Passage to India (1924) and George Orwell in Burmese Days (1934). But the word’s current dual register in British English is as nothing compared to the range of its meanings in India.

The raw and the cooked

According to the definitive glossary of British India, Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson (1886), the word pukka derives from Hindi pakkā, which means ‘ripe, mature, cooked’. Pakkā is often paired with its antonym, kachchā, ‘raw, crude, unripe, uncooked’. For orthodox Hindus of north and central India, these terms refer to the spiritual purity of certain types of food. Under dietary regulations, pakkā foods are considered the purest; they are fried in ghee or other fat, and can be used in the temple and for communal festivals. Kachchā foods are not literally raw, but boiled in water, baked or roasted; they are considered less pure, and their use is restricted to the home. So, although Jamie Oliver may not have been aware of pukka’s etymology, it is strangely appropriate that he should have associated the word with food.

From their culinary roots, the terms pakkā and kachchā spread to a variety of applications. Unbaked clay is impure, kachchā; but after it has been fired, it becomes pakkā, cooked and pure. A house with mud walls and thatched roof is kachchā; one built of bricks, concrete or stone is pakkā. As categories of housing, these terms are still in official use in India today, along with the hybrid semi-pakkā (brick or stone walls and thatched roof). Such forms of classification (along with many other bureaucratic procedures) were inherited from the previous British administration.

Cutcha and Pucka

We learn from Hobson-Jobson that the adjectives cutcha and pucka were ‘among the most constantly recurring Anglo-Indian colloquial terms, owing to the great variety of metaphorical applications of which both are susceptible’. The glosses in Hobson-Jobson sometimes extend for pages, but the entry for cutcha does not attempt a precise definition. Rather it offers a list of fifteen paired examples to illustrate the shades of meaning associated with cutcha and pucka: impermanent and permanent, inauthentic and authentic, improper and proper. The examples range from bricks, roads, accounts, currency, weights and measures, dyes and official appointments to fevers, and even, in typical quirky fashion, scoundrels: ‘a cutcha Scoundrel, a limp and fatuous knave; a pukka Scoundrel, one whose motto is “Thorough”’.

In the original edition of Hobson-Jobson, the paired cutcha/pucka list breaks the layout of the page. It posed a particular typographical problem when setting the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Hobson-Jobson. But breaking lexicographic rules is characteristic of Hobson-Jobson. It is unique among lexicons: a multilingual glossary, Hobson-Jobson traces the routes by which words enter English from Indian, Persian, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, and Spanish (and back again). It draws its illustrative examples from texts in a wide range of European languages, both ancient and modern. The quotations are often selected more for their narrative value than their illustrative function. At once scholarly and playful, encyclopedic and anecdotal, Hobson-Jobson offers an unparalleled account of British life in India.

The cutcha/pucka entry itself reveals much about the British in late nineteenth-century India. Its examples range over many of the key areas of British concern: settlement, communications, trade, the administrative hierarchy, and disease. It is notable that Hobson-Jobson was published in 1886, the year after political opposition to British rule found expression in the formation of the Indian National Congress. The widespread use of the cutcha/pucka distinction, balanced between a sense of permanence and impermanence, of reliability and unreliability, suggests both the confidence and insecurity of colonial rule.

The word pukka continues to live in both Hindi and English today. With the rise of Hinglish, the linguistic mix of Hindi and English fashionable in both India and among the South Asia diaspora, pukka has received a new lease of life. In 2006 Baljinder K. Mahalproduced a guide to the language, The Queen’s Hinglish: How to Speak Pukka. In 2011 Daljit Nagra, the British poet who writes in a distinctive Punjabi English (‘Punglish’), published ‘This Be the Pukka Verse’, a darkly comic poem that explores the linguistic legacy of empire (and invokes Philip Larkin’s famous outcry against families, ‘This Be the Verse’). Both titles poke fun at the notions of propriety associated with the term, and place pukka at the intersection between two languages and cultures.