When I heard Deepika Padukone would introduce ‘Naatu Naatu’ at the Oscars, I braced for reams of copy about her outfit. That turned out to be non-controversial — classic Louis Vuitton black and a Cartier necklace.
The buzz was all about her accent. There seemed to be a collective social-media sigh of relief that Padukone had chosen not to put on some Amreekan accent for her big Hollywood moment. I too shared in that relief.
Like those trolling RRR star NTR Jr. for his Golden Globes red carpet accent, we’ve all sniggered at some point or the other at some desi who decides after a short trip to the West to come back with a roll-onvideshi accent.
I can still remember sitting in New Delhi airport years ago after a cancelled Air India flight. Angry passengers were storming the counter and complaining vociferously. Among them was an NRI who puffed out his chest, summoned up an American twang and spluttered: “This is unacceptable. I will write to The New York Times about this”, as if that would put the fear of god into the harried customer service representative.
Maybe NTR Jr. thought the Americans would understand him better
I was firmly of the school that rolled its eyes whenever it encountered some Bhavesh-turned-Bob in Silicon Valley who put on an all-American drawl to sell used cars or condominiums. But then a friend wondered whether it is such a crime for a Bhavesh to become Bob and muster up an accent if that makes his life and livelihood a little easier? Perhaps NTR Jr. too just thought Americans would understand him better.
Or is it about the intent of the accent rather than the accent itself? Is it kosher if it’s a survival strategy in a new world but cringeworthy if it has been put on to impress others, like someone name-dropping a designer brand? Or worse, a faux designer brand?
But why does an accent have to be that loaded, one way or the other? When a French person speaks English with a Gallic accent, that’s tres charming. But when an Indian speaks English with a heavy Indian accent, it becomes a marker of a lack of sophistication or education even though the accent is no yardstick to measure either.
There is no reason to hero worship those who speak in the clipped tones of a Doordarshan newscaster of yore but we sometimes pay more attention to how someone speaks rather than what they are saying, whether it’s a movie star or the prime minister or Karan Thapar.
Obviously this has to do with the exalted position we have accorded English because it was the language of our rulers. In a speech for All India Radio, novelist R.K. Narayan admitted, “For all its importance and status, English did not sink to the grassroots. It remained the language of the educated classes and acted as a barrier between the masses and the classes.” English was a gated community and a “proper” accent was a lock on the gate.
Accent as a certificate of authenticity
I too bought into the accent tamasha without realising it. When some aunt said, “Oh look he’s been in America so many years and still speaks just like us”, I preened in pride as if I had won some certificate of authenticity. The accent was a way I reassured myself that I had somehow held onto my roots even though when I said I was going home, I no longer knew if it meant a 2-bedroom house with a peaked roof in San Francisco or a two-storey house with green shutters in Kolkata.
But accents are sneaky things. Somewhere along the way, traces of California crept into my English without my realising it. I only understood it after returning to India. Suddenly an American friend said, “Oh you sound so much more Indian again. I can hear your Rs roll.” I thought I sounded the same as always.
Recently at a literature festival I was on stage interviewing an author from San Francisco. When the video of our talk went up online, someone complained that the moderator didn’t have that “horrendous” accent in the beginning and had picked it up as the conversation went on.
At first I was miffed. But then I realised, as I talked with a Californian, traces of a long lost Californian accent must have crept back into me, like wisps of a San Francisco fog stealing into the Kolkata sunshine. The person who complained thought it was an affectation but it was utterly natural. I was just going back to another place I’d called home.
At one time I had been confused about the very idea of home. Now I realise, sometimes like your accent, it can be all over the place. But as long as you can find your way back, it doesn’t really matter.
The writer is the author of ‘Don’t Let Him Know’ and likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.