A friend once reported this scene involving a new colleague who was sweet, chic and in possession of a thick American accent. New Colleague was grilled on Day 1 by another colleague. The interrogation seemed without malice but was relentless. “So you grew up in America?” No, said the new woman. “You went to college in America?” “You went to school in America? You went to American school in India?” The answer to all these questions was “no”. Before the fatal “Why do you have this accent if you grew up in Chandigarh?” was asked, my friend kindly whisked the new colleague away.
The new TV adaptation of A Suitable Boy has led to several discussions about strained dialogue and retro accents. Viewers and critics, including Lounge columnist Raja Sen, have complained about how it reminded them of amateur drawing room comedies, Peter Sellers, Apu and other great museums of the accent. The first in this list, the amateur drawing room comedy, is usually of the variety where Indians in borrowed jackets work to sound upper-class British. The others are white people trying to sound like working-class Indians. Before decades of solid critique, both accent practices were considered normal, just art. After decades of critique, both practices thrive. It’s the same as when your friend the singer-songwriter takes out their guitar or ukulele in your living room and suddenly becomes “soulful American”.
It is all in aid of authenticity, of course. The Suitable Boy’s accent coach Hetal Varia told Huffington Post that the over-enunciation is meant to be retro. Upper-class Indians who spoke English in the 1950s tried harder to sound “correct” because of their colonial hangover, she argued convincingly (except for her throwaway usage of the retro phrase “very well-bred families”, which made me giggle).
Varia is right. Accents change over the decades and the value placed on accents too changes. You may have wondered why actors Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant spoke in that strange posh accent. Perhaps then you already know that the “mid-Atlantic accent” of that era was a totally manufactured accent, allowing Americans to imply a fancy British-ish background vowel by vowel. When the accent disappeared from American public life, it was because that aspiration had become uncool.
When Zadie Smith wrote in White Teeth that the international language of youth is Jamaican, my heart leaped at its truth. It has been 20 years since she wrote that line and now the international language of youth, beauty and truth is probably Korean. The establishment, without doubt, is American. This is why Indians of a certain vintage find it aggravating that young well-to-do Indians choose to say math instead of maths or grade 3 instead of standard 3. Not because of a loyalty to Britain or a rage against the US but because they had a few decades of imagining that the words that the British had left behind had become our own—unglamorous and familiar and our own. Briefly, we had been in a bubble making our own affectations before the internet brought us Americana week by week.
Why did A Suitable Boy pick this accent of all things in the world for realism? Perhaps because realism in TV land means picking an 84-year-old British writer to adapt a novel set in India where English is the primary language of 256,000 people and the second language of 83 million people. The Mehras et al sounding so “correct” is an annoying reminder of the imbalance in the culture industry. Because it’s not like we don’t have our own out-of-touch writers.
A Suitable Boy has a hilarious passage (much like the office interrogation) in which the uncool Haresh quizzes the Anglophone Chatterjis about their time in England and is shell-shocked that they have actually never been. This accent by osmosis remains a familiar social phenomenon. In high school, my classmate Arifa was often the compere. One year, when she was on stage for Gandhi Jayanti, she spoke into the mike and we all leapt 3ft in the air. After a month-long holiday in the US, she was suddenly Gyandhi-ing it.
We all have similar stories reflecting the particular value we place on the process of acquiring an accent. I was brought up on jokes about non-resident Malayalis getting the Malayalam “ra” wrong alongside the jokes about Malayalis saying “lo” instead of law or Kannadigas saying “turrrning”. Accents are codes and so are accent jokes. Sometimes the codes are affectionate, sometimes they are oppressive. But all of them point to our looking to accents for a whole lot of “tell me about yourself”.
A friend who had an unfortunate Czech boyfriend in her UK college complained later: “What did I know about him really? If he was an Indian with a fake posh accent, at least I would have known he was a fake, no?” This is back when she and I didn’t know the technical phrase “code-switching” for all the back-and-forth we all do in everyday speech. She from north Karnataka Kannada to Bangalore Kannada and “neutral” English. Me having somewhat erased “lo” and “awfis”. But the tension of the prestigious accent “slipping” like a mask never quite leaves us.
Recently, while reading from my short stories as I promoted my book, I noticed more than once that my grip on “were” is quite slippery. Distract me and I am quite likely to say “they where going home”. They were. We were. We were in our accents. We are.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August 2020.