By Jackie Thakkar
In 2013, my first year as a student in Los Angeles, a classmate mocked my Indian accent. He likened it to Dr Vindaloo’s from Courage the Cowardly Dog. Then expressed surprise that I knew about Courage the Cowardly Dog – he assumed all Indian children didn’t have access to Cartoon Network. Or TVs. Suddenly, all the Yankee ignorance I’d been warned about was shoved right into my face. It’s part of the reason I was conscious enough to start rolling my Rs just a bit more. The struggle to fit in when living abroad is real, especially if you are an impressionable teen.
Pop culture has taught the world that Indians sound like Apu from The Simpsons, and for better or worse, that’s a source of amusement for the rest of the world. Naturally, diaspora Indians feel the need to mask any notes of desiness that might slip off their tongue.
But what about the rest of us back home? Who live in India. Why do we feel the need to impress white – or almost-white folks – with our English over here? Where does this stem from?
I’ve seen perfectly rational urban Indians act awkward when conversing with Caucasians. One such acquaintance, let’s call him Bipin, is the cream of the crop. For most, Bipin’s formal clothes, groomed beard, and branded spectacles make him the quintessential confident millennial. But only a few know that Bipin, who has spent exactly three months of his life in the UK, will – without warning – insist on pronouncing awesome as “awwhsum” and sandwich as “sammich”. Much to the dismay of our Caucasian company.
When these episodes get really out of hand (usually after three or four pegs), Bipin feels compelled to bring up his undying love for American icons like Joey Tribbiani and Barney Stinson by yelling “How you doin’?” or “Suit ahp!” He is indifferent to the fact that the white people he’s pandering to are Swedish and are clueless about US sitcoms. Firangs are all one and the same to him. And to most of us.
Does our need to fake an accent stem from our colonial hangover? Or the ignorance of the West when it comes to accepting Indians as good English speakers? Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
The world digs the English accent, it’s considered suave; the French and Italian accents are sexy; the Russian accent has an air of mystery to it (it’s the Bond movies and GI Joe); while the Latin American sound exotic. But we Indians seem to have gotten a raw deal, and our accents have been reduced to a joke. This, despite the fact, that linguistic experts believe, that as our economy grows so will the influence of Indian English. “In language, numbers count. There are more people speaking English in India than in the rest of the native English-speaking world combined,” Professor David Crystal, one of the world’s foremost linguists, was quoted as saying in a report titled “Why Your Kids will Speak English with an Indian Accent”.
Indians seem to have gotten a raw deal, and our accents have been reduced to a joke.
But maybe, the problem lies in our heads.
Growing up, my dad was notoriously particular about my pronunciation. Throughout my growing-up years I’ve been interrupted mid-sentence to be taught the correct way of pronouncing words like “comfortable” and “tortoise” (it rhymes with Fortis, who’d have thunk?). As a child, I’d be annoyed by his pickiness, because no one wants to be checked on their birthday party.
It took me years of introspection, to realise that my dad had grown up in the ’60s, went to a Gujarati-medium school, and lived at a time when learning English was a privilege. In fact, my dad wouldn’t learn the alphabet until the fifth grade, and could barely form full sentences until he was 18. To learn to converse in English, he painstakingly read books, magazines, and rented old English movies on VHS. Like many Indians, my BCom graduate father’s biggest motivation to polish my pronunciation was because he genuinely believed that speaking better English made you appear smarter.
To loosely quote Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, while previous generations simply adopted the English aspiration, Indian millennials were born into it, moulded by it. Us post-liberalisation, English-medium kids were raised with easy access to Cartoon Network, Star World, and Zee Café. We binged on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Seinfeld, and F.R.I.E.N.D.S. And our musical tastes were on par with that of the West courtesy VH1 and MTV. We even knew the lyrics to most Backstreet Boys songs before we knew trigonometry. By all means, you’d think that this access to Western content would’ve desensitised us to white people, and we’d stop putting accents on a pedestal. But ironically, we have only taken the buck further.
Proof of this is a recent tweet from the Athletics Federation of India. It chose to refer to Hima Das’ English proficiency in a message that should’ve focused solely on her history-making gold at the World Under-20 Athletics Championships. “Not so fluent in English, but she gave her best there too.” Readers were justifiably irate. In a Hindustan Times column Aasheesh Sharma assessed, “More than five decades after Milkha Singh, the best quarter-miler in Asia, was ridiculed for his inability to speak good English, we still seem to be struggling to get our priorities right.”
This is because, just like my father, most Indians are still fixated with the language of aspiration. We go our entire lives without realising that one’s prowess over the English language isn’t necessarily a test of their intelligence.
So while we battle racist stereotypes with “The Problem with Apu”, it’s time we realise the problem is as much with us. The accent is not our identity.