to be or not to be

I grew up in Delhi. North India. The epicentre of north India. When people from the south [of India] refer to North India they are most likely talking about Delhi NCR (national capital region that includes Delhi and the satellite cities of Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida, and Ghaziabad). At least that’s my perception. I lived in Chennai for two years (south of India). Although it wasn’t much better than Delhi, in many ways, there was and there is a certain calm about it (maybe because it is essentially a sub-urban town and IIT Madras’ campus is part of the protected Guindy National Park).

Growing up, and having gone to a CBSE english medium school meant that your first language, Hindi, was a marginal second language. Everything else was supposed to be learned in English as all our books were in English. But culture — the day to day — happened in Hindi. My parents spoke Hindi. In fact, for me, English was always about formal structure and grammar rules — like learning a new game. I am also autistic. That means I can’t just be content with an approximation of a pronounciation. It means I am always looking for the right way of pronouncing an English word. I would never pronounce words that seemed like they were Hindi pronounciations of english alphabets. But once you bring in the intersectionality of class politics around language these seemingly rigid walls become pervious: all accents are unintelligible until you have spent enough time hearing them. Ultimately, we speak what we hear. But why is it then that we insist on hearing only what we speak.

And some version of this story would hold for many Indians who grew up in urban, sub-urban cities in India if I may be so bold to speak for such a large volume of people. Some of us simply liked the challenge of a new language, even though many many have been crushed by it since this access to English is heavily dipped in class privilege. Anyway, I can only represent and qualify my own experiences, and then see if they are also shared by others and if that implies some underlying pattern or phenomena which could help counter the various hegemonies we encounter in the West. So, where was I? The influx of music and pop-culture meant we found ourselves in the voices of many so-called ‘native’ english artists, musicians, and writers. Of course, we have an Indian dialect of English. Why did I never try to make English my own. Why? May be I should have. At least then I could have replied to an implicit remark that was made by a European in relation to my spoken English during PhD years: that I ‘hide’ my accent. Indeed, many Indians seem to be putting on an accent or hiding their own. Here are two questions: a. why do they hide their accents? and b. do I hide my accent or is it that you have only seen about 5 Indian people in your life and want all of us to speak in that exact way?

But before I attempt to answer these questions: I am perplexed by the lack of imaginative range in some people. How does someone, who cares about the most mundane details in a specific field of study, become so opaque in their analysis when it comes to socio-cultural things? Is it simply a cognitive bias or a convenient co-opting of cognitive bias, one that allows you to exert soft power and dominance? Putting people from the global south in dialectical hierarchies is a racial typification since these hierarchies don’t exist within the global North. Irish, Australian, Scottish, American, and English are proud to switch accents and accept the ‘art’ of being able to speak in different accents — these aren’t dialects which highlight socio-cultural differences anymore and are simply different ways of speaking English. Western Europeans proudly talk of themselves as being able to speak and write ‘good’ english. Many of them speak American and many of them speak English English. It’s a different matter all together when an Indian puts on an accent or hides their own.

Right. Cutting to the chase: why do I hide my accent? I don’t hide my accent — I just have, over time, found myself pronouncing certain specific alphabets: d’s, t’s, and very awkwardly and unwillingly, r’s in softer enunciations, aligning with how these sounded to me around myself while making daily conversations in Sydney. Back home, most people you’d interact with outside of work would speak broken english if at all (for example in Chennai where english was all I could use since I don’t know Tamil). In Delhi you speak Hindi or Hinglish. English remained a very formal thing. Often the natural language for expression of ideas of any kind and often, a mask.

So why was it insinuated that I hide my accent? Because I am too outspoken about everything and I can actually be very articulate (for an Indian woman they have seen so far), because misogyny: men will never be questioned for how they choose to present themselves, and because, often times, these are meant to be a “smart comeback” to a perceived idea of what you are actually saying. I am having a whole-hearted discussion about how people speak what they hear — that it is easier for me to understand english shows, typically, than american shows — because Indian english is based on the British English standard and you are having a reaction to the mere possibility of this presentation?!

As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of Vikram Seth’s ‘The Frog and the Nightingale’:

Once upon a time a frog
Croaked away in Bingle Bog
Every night from dusk to dawn
He croaked awn and awn and awn
Other creatures loathed his voice,
But, alas, they had no choice,
And the crass cacophony
Blared out from the sumac tree
At whose foot the frog each night
Minstrelled on till morning night

Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks.
Insults or complaints or bricks
Stilled the frogs determination
To display his heart’s elation.
But one night a nightingale
In the moonlight cold and pale
Perched upon the sumac tree
Casting forth her melody
Dumbstruck sat the gaping frog
And the whole admiring bog
Stared towards the sumac, rapt,

And, when she had ended, clapped,
Ducks had swum and herons waded
To her as she serenaded
And a solitary loon
Wept, beneath the summer moon.
Toads and teals and tiddlers, captured
By her voice, cheered on, enraptured:
“Bravo! ” “Too divine! ” “Encore! “
So the nightingale once more,
Quite unused to such applause,
Sang till dawn without a pause.

Next night when the Nightingale
Shook her head and twitched her tail,
Closed an eye and fluffed a wing
And had cleared her throat to sing
She was startled by a croak.
“Sorry – was that you who spoke? “
She enquired when the frog
Hopped towards her from the bog.
“Yes,” the frog replied. “You see,
I’m the frog who owns this tree
In this bog I’ve long been known
For my splendid baritone
And, of course, I wield my pen
For Bog Trumpet now and then”

“Did you… did you like my song? “
“Not too bad – but far too long.
The technique was fine of course,
But it lacked a certain force”.
“Oh! ” the nightingale confessed.
Greatly flattered and impressed
That a critic of such note
Had discussed her art and throat:
“I don’t think the song’s divine.
But – oh, well – at least it’s mine”.

“That’s not much to boast about”.
Said the heartless frog. “Without
Proper training such as I
– And few others can supply.
You’ll remain a mere beginner.
But with me you’ll be a winner”
“Dearest frog”, the nightingale
Breathed: “This is a fairy tale –
And you are Mozart in disguise
Come to earth before my eyes”.

“Well I charge a modest fee.”
“Oh! ” “But it won’t hurt, you’ll see”
Now the nightingale inspired,
Flushed with confidence, and fired
With both art and adoration,
Sang – and was a huge sensation.
Animals for miles around
Flocked towards the magic sound,
And the frog with great precision
Counted heads and charged admission.

Though next morning it was raining,
He began her vocal training.
“But I can’t sing in this weather”
“Come my dear – we’ll sing together.
Just put on your scarf and sash,
Koo-oh-ah! ko-ash! ko-ash! “
So the frog and nightingale
Journeyed up and down the scale
For six hours, till she was shivering
and her voice was hoarse and quivering.

Though subdued and sleep deprived,
In the night her throat revived,
And the sumac tree was bowed,
With a breathless, titled crowd:
Owl of Sandwich, Duck of Kent,
Mallard and Milady Trent,
Martin Cardinal Mephisto,
And the Coot of Monte Cristo,
Ladies with tiaras glittering
In the interval sat twittering –
And the frog observed them glitter
With a joy both sweet and bitter.

Every day the frog who’d sold her
Songs for silver tried to scold her:
“You must practice even longer
Till your voice, like mine grows stronger.
In the second song last night
You got nervous in mid-flight.
And, my dear, lay on more trills:
Audiences enjoy such frills.
You must make your public happier:
Give them something sharper snappier.
We must aim for better billings.
You still owe me sixty shillings.”

Day by day the nightingale
Grew more sorrowful and pale.
Night on night her tired song
Zipped and trilled and bounced along,
Till the birds and beasts grew tired
At a voice so uninspired
And the ticket office gross
Crashed, and she grew more morose –
For her ears were now addicted
To applause quite unrestricted,
And to sing into the night
All alone gave no delight.

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.

Said the frog: “I tried to teach her,
But she was a stupid creature –
Far too nervous, far too tense.
Far too prone to influence.
Well, poor bird – she should have known
That your song must be your own.
That’s why I sing with panache:
“Koo-oh-ah! ko-ash! ko-ash! “
And the foghorn of the frog
Blared unrivalled through the bog.

Vikram Seth, an Indian poet who writes in English.

Koo-oh-ah, ko-ash, ko-ash. That’s how academic culture feels, by and large. Hierarchichal, cliquey, stiffling, drab even though you will find the most kinds of connoisseurs here, centrist, and often reactionary. Of course, there are a sincere few but whose presence, I have found, feels like a band-aid at best.

Getting back to the english kerfuffle, I am not alone. There are purists who critique the Indian English literary authors for writing in English when their cultural life happens in the specific regional languages. Whatever. Thanks to the literal multi-culturalism I grew up with I don’t have a specific cultural identity within India itself. And it only becomes important when you go abroad where a stereotypical notion of Indianess gets plastered onto you.

I should make note that there are some Indians who feel very attached to their Indian or should I say Tamil identities (apologies for my cheekiness but this phenomenon is far too common not to mention) and it’s mostly upper-class Brahmin pride. These people like to stick with their accents and identities like nationalists. Nevermind the fact that the highest number of unfinished flyovers belong to the state of Tamil Nadu in India. You will never be able to make any conversation with them about actual politics or anything that shines light on their very caste ridden culture. Marriage ceremonies among different castes feel like a tantrum show but bring it up with a neo-lib Tamil working an elite job and you’ll be dismissed in a matter-of-factly way: yeah but that’s because they belong to different castes while being completely and openly racist about Punjabi folks in particular and North Indians in general.

And to the question of Indians putting on an accent? Social mobility. But you already knew that. It’s very much like the where are you from originally question. They know. They just want to put you in your respective place.

To anyone feeling iffy, and on behalf of my fellow Indian misfits, I say: Ph – oo – ck – u – ff, ph – oo – ash, ph – oo – ash.

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