“I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with ‘lotaah’ in one hand and ‘dhoti’ in the next when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women on plateform. I am got leaved at Ahmedpur station. This too much bad, if passenger goes to make dung that dam guard not wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honour to make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big report to papers.”
If a student wrote this letter in an examination script, how would the teacher have reacted? I am sure the teacher would have laughed at and rebuked the student for his/her bad grammar, poor vocabulary and bad spelling mistakes No matter how poor its language may be, the letter made history.
Just google “Okhil Babu’s letter” and you will get the following story:
“Okhil Chandra Sen wrote this letter to the
Sahibganj divisional railway office in 1909
. It is on display at the Railway Museum in New Delhi. It was also reproduced under the caption “Travellers’ Tales” in the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Any guesses why this letter is of historic value?
It led to the introduction of TOILETS in trains in India!”
What made the Railway Department move so swiftly to introduce toilets in railway trains just after receiving one complaint from a single passenger? The Department did not look at Okhil babu’s knowledge of grammar or command in English language. It looked at the distress and anguish of the passenger depicted so briefly, clearly and forcefully in the letter. Naturally, the Department found the justification for the introduction of toilets in trains in India.
We can forget about grammar for the time being. Okhil Babu did not write pages. He wrote only seven sentences in as many lines. Can anyone express his feelings so vividly and forcefully in such a brief letter? So, brevity is important in writing a letter.
To describe his distressed condition, Okhil Babu used some uncommon words like ‘privy’, ‘nuisance’, ‘my shocking’, ‘dung’, etc. These uncommon words surprisingly describe the degree of his distress and anguish. Such words appear more effective and natural than many common words. Why? The reason is simple. When in great distress, who cares for appropriate words? One instinctively uses whatever words come to one’s mind spontaneously. Such words are more appropriate than any found in a thesaurus.
Lastly, one cannot fail to appreciate the force of the language of the letter. Certainly, Okhil Babu’s style of writing was successful in convincing the Railway Department that the introduction of toilets in trains was fully justified. His style lies in the chronological arrangement of the sequence of events i.e. his reasons for going to the toilet, his condition while running after the train, his anger at the guard, demand for punishment of the guard and his warning if no action was taken!
There is no reason to laugh at Okhil Babu’s language. His knowledge of English grammar is poor but he wrote a historic letter. We have reasons to be grateful to him for his letter. It not only introduced toilets in Indian Railway trains but also taught us how to write a brief but forceful letter. Learning English grammar or spelling is not difficult. Anyone with an effort can learn English grammar and spelling but it is not easy to write a brief but forceful letter. We can learn a lot from his letter. Hats off to Okhil Babu!
The writer is a former chief engineer of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission