It was my first visit to India and I was staying in a hotel in New Delhi’s East of Kailash—a neighbourhood that always makes me think of the sunrise face of Tibet’s holiest mountain with which it has nothing in common. It is north and yes, a little east, of its more affluent neighbor, Greater Kailash on the outer ring road, that is home to some of the city’s most well-to-do denizens. Around eight in the morning, there came the soft plop! of a copy of the English-language newspaper The Hindustan Times being dropped outside my door, a sound I’ve come to associate with staying here and which I always find soothingly reassuring.
I made myself some coffee with one of those miniscule packets of Nescafé and scanned the front page. I was still groggy from jet lag, and it took me a few seconds to fully realize that I didn’t understand half of what I was reading. FIR against ASI staffer for cheating NRI and another, HC orders CBI inquiry into illegal mining across UP. What on earth were they on about?I kept re-reading the headlines as if their meaning would emerge from the letters like some magical code. I scanned the stories, naively imagining that the abbreviations would be expanded upon somewhere in the column, but this was almost never the case. The operating assumption seemed to be that the readers already knew what all these acronyms stood for. In keeping with my ‘things I will never do but it’s fun to think about’ list, I made a mental note that one of my future projects would be to furnish visiting tourists with an acronym phrase book upon arrival at the airport.
Indians love all forms of abbreviation. They use them liberally, even in casual conversation. To an outsider, this can give the impression, despite the prevalence of English, that they are communicating in some sort of code. A Punjabi acquaintance of mine used to delight in making up acronymic nicknames for people, particularly those he didn’t like. He called one person an OSW (Over Smart Wannabee) and another WOS (Waste of Space). There are some acronyms that are a must know for anyone operating in India. For starters, even getting around the place requires acronym-intelligence since quite a number of neighbourhoods in Delhi are abbreviated. Greater Kailash is GK1 and GK2 while Connaught Place, the city centre, is CP. It’s helpful to know some government departments such as the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs), the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) and government agencies such as the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) or political parties, such as the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). The Communist Party of India is abbreviated to CPI, not to be confused with the CPI(M), Communist Party of India (Marxist). Government of India is often reduced to GOI, while states with two word names are compressed into two letters, such as HP for Himachal Pradesh or AP for Andhra Pradesh. Chief Ministers of a state (the equivalent of an American governor) are almost always referred to as CM.
The popular usage of acronyms might have something to do with the habit of abbreviating long Indian names, especially the multi-syllabic forms from the south. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, India’s 11th President, was understandably shortened to A. P. J. Kalam. The famous writer, Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, is better known as R. K. Narayan. But the main reason for such widespread use of abbreviations is the multilingual nature of India. It is worth remembering that although it is listed as an official language, English is still only spoken by a minority. The 2001 Census recorded 30 languages spoken by more than a million native speakers and 122 that are spoken by more than 10,000. So abbreviations are indeed a kind of code, used to condense meaning into a few letters, and they are also much easier for many Indians to pronounce. The majority of the people who read them don’t necessarily know what the letters stand for, but they know what they represent, and that is what matters. The average reader may not actually know, for example, that FIR stands for ‘First Information Report’, but he does know that this is the relevant document he should ask to file if he wants to report a crime to the SP—Superintendent of Police.
Other helpful acronyms are BCCI (Board of Cricket Control in India) and IPL (Indian Premier League). Since cricket is a national obsession, these acronyms can help you to avoid the places where games are being held so you don’t have to spend the better part of the day in traffic. If you travel by train or national airlines you will need to know your PNR (Passenger Name Record) number. If you ever dare to weigh in on the topic of India-Pakistan relations, you can impress your company by slipping the abbreviation LOC into the conversation. This stands for Line of Control, the militarized boundary between Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and the Indian-controlled state of Jammu & Kashmir. This should not be confused with the LAC (Line of Actual Control), which is the political boundary between India and China.
Many banks are reduced to letter combinations such as ICICI (or icky icky as I took to calling it), HDFC and SBI for State Bank of India. There is a whole barrage of acronyms specifying the residential and ethnic status of Indians. PIO is Person of Indian Origin. OCI stands for Overseas Citizen of India, while NRI means Non-Resident Indian—an Indian citizen who has emigrated to another country for six months or more. RNRI is a Returned Non Resident Indian, meaning an NRI who has moved back home. Certain acronyms in this grouping poke fun at the oft-complicated status of the globetrotting modern Indian such as ABCD, used to denote American Born Confused Desi (‘Desi’ meaning a native of the subcontinent), while others such as ABCDEFGHIJ—American Born Confused Desi Emigrated From Gujarat, House In Jersey—are a self-effacing jibe at India’s love affair with acronyms itself. But since the mid-2000s, with India’s economical and cultural rise on the world stage, the word ‘confused’ is now often replaced by ‘confident’.
I began to find this habit of reducing everything to its least possible letters rather charming. And by the time I was able to understand fifty percent of headlines like BJP leader seeks SIT probe into purchase of penguins by BMC I began to feel a little encouraged. But I am still very much a beginner. Last time I was in Kolkata, I glanced at a copy of the Indian Express that someone had left in the hotel lobby. One of the headlines read LU out with merit list for LLB, LLM. I knew nothing for certain about that headline except that it meant that I was back in India. Or perhaps I should say, Independent Nation Declared in August.