"How Come You Speak English So Well?" And Other Questions About Indianness Abroad
As an Indian abroad, English was always at war with Hindi and Malayalam to be the language I could claim as authentically mine.
When people ask me where I’m from, I have to make a split-second decision on whether to present the long story or the condensed version.
When I meet new people in Paris, it’s usually the condensed version. It’s easier and faster and, let’s be honest, people just want to place you as “from” somewhere quickly. In this version, I’m from India.
Where in India? New Delhi?
No, Bangalore, in the south.
They haven’t really heard of the city. If they have, it’s because of outsourcing. Whatever. It’s fine. We move on.
When they start asking follow-up questions, the condensed version is no good. I start from the beginning. I was born in Kerala, I say. It’s a state in southern India. Then my family moved to Cairo, and then Colombo. I grew up in Sri Lanka.
This impresses people, naturally. Who doesn’t love an “exotic” backstory? It makes my parents sound like fancy diplomats or wandering hippies (they’re neither).
I usually finish the story by saying we moved to Bangalore when I was 16 and I finished high school in the city.
For most people this is enough, this is great.
For some, this is the cue for that loaded and familiar question: How come you speak English so well?
My parents were always mom and dad, never amma or mama, appa or papa. English was my language.
Before I moved to Europe in 2014, I had never been asked why I speak English so well. In Sri Lanka, English was the language we all spoke. It was what my South Korean, Indian, British, Swiss, Japanese, German and Sri Lankan classmates all had in common. This was the early 2000s: we watched Gilmore Girls and listened to Panic! At the Disco. We found our teenage angst captured in the books of Judy Blume and Meg Cabot. We thought in English, we wrote in English.
At home, of course, our parents spoke different languages, languages we didn’t always see on TV or read about in books. My parents spoke Malayalam, Hindi and English equally well but I remember English was the only way I could communicate. I understood Malayalam – technically my mother tongue – well enough, but I never learned to speak it back, thinking with childish arrogance that any language that wasn’t English was uncool and therefore secondary.
I watched Bollywood movies and Malayalam movies with disdain, incredulous that people actually enjoyed them, never once thinking how strange and fascinating it was that I could understand almost everything they were saying but not actually say the words myself.
For me, an English speaker with a tenuous connection to Indian languages, my parents were always mom and dad, never amma or mama, appa or papa. English was my language. My only language.
I started reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words in a coffee shop in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, the city where I currently live. I ordered my usual cortado and took a seat next to a table of noisy and impeccably-dressed French women.
Lahiri is telling the universal story of linguistic complication and authenticity that has been lurking unaddressed deep within me.
Lahiri’s book was originally written in Italian and I was reading the English translation. In the background, an apron-clad barista carefully explained the provenance of the coffee we were all drinking to the table next to mine.
Lahiri traces the struggle of learning Italian, the futility she sometimes feels pursuing it, and the complicated relationship that emerges between her chosen language (Italian), her dominant language (English), and her mother tongue (Bengali). Though her writing is intensely personal, I realize that Lahiri is telling the universal story of linguistic complication and authenticity that has been lurking unaddressed deep within me for many years.
“I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language too,” Lahiri writes, and thus begins my realisation that this is exactly the book I need to read.
When I moved to India, my lack of fluency in Indian languages never posed a problem. In Bangalore, like other cosmopolitan Indian metropolises, many of us live in an English-speaking bubble. In supermarkets the labels on our food are almost always in English; the items on menus too. We know all the words to Taylor Swift’s songs; we keep up with the Kardashians.
It wasn’t until I moved away from India as an adult that I was asked to rationalise the authenticity of my claim to English.
We know all the words to Taylor Swift’s songs; we keep up with the Kardashians.
“I have to justify the language I speak in, even though I know it perfectly,” Lahiri writes of being Indian-origin in America, never being allowed to feel fully entitled to English though it is obviously her language too.
I know well that look of surprise on the faces of Europeans and Americans when they hear a brown person speak English perfectly, confused at the comfort with colloquialisms, taken aback by every pop culture reference. Ironically, I’ve also experienced being mistaken for American several times; to some, an easy command over the English language is rationalised by the assumption that I was born and raised in the West.
At first, this would make me roll my eyes. Everyone speaks English in India, I would say. It’s normal.
But is it?
India’s relationship with English is complicated, steeped in years of tumultuous colonial and post-colonial history, very little of which I learned in school. Everyone does not speak English in India. If they did, I wouldn’t be giving directions to rickshaw drivers in bad Hindi; my mother wouldn’t be instructing our maid in Tamil.
To me, this history doesn’t challenge my personal claim to the language, but it certainly gives it some weight, some complication. I have every right to speak English, and to speak it damn well, but my ability to do so doesn’t come from nothing. Decades ago, choices were made for us by the British Empire and by us ourselves, giving English the place it has today in the India of the 21st century. Every sentence I write is in a language that is simultaneously a choice and an imposition.
That is the convoluted legacy of English in India.
When I first arrived in Paris, it felt like I had been thrown into the deep end. Though I studied French throughout high school, it always remained a collection of words and grammatical rules, existing only in the pages of my textbooks. But in Paris, the language came alive, surrounding me in cafes and bookstores, at the bank and in the supermarket.
Naturally, I floundered. I made terrible mistakes, forgot basic words, and constantly confused the use of the formal vous and the informal tu. I walked around feeling very, very intimidated by the prospect of a conversation. Like Lahiri at the start of In Other Words, I was ashamed and frustrated all the time.
In Paris, the language came alive, surrounding me in cafes and bookstores, at the bank and in supermarkets.
After months passed, it felt like the clouds were slowly clearing. I read my first French book (Heureux les heureux by Yasmina Reza) and then read two more; I discovered French radio and managed to watch and actually understand a three-hour long, experimental Turkish movie with subtitles only in French.
My favourite chapter in Lahiri’s book is called The Triangle. In it, the author presents the way her three languages interact in the form of a triangle: English is the solid base and Italian and Bengali are the more precarious, but still present, sides. Lahiri draws the Italian and Bengali sides of her metaphorical triangle with a pencil to convey her somewhat fragile hold over those languages. In contrast, English is the side that’s drawn with a pen.
As I read that chapter, it occurred to me that my own version of the triangle would be very similar. English is my solid base too; French makes up one fragile side. As I spend more time in France, my command over French is becoming stronger, on track to overtake the attachment I feel to my “mother tongues” of Hindi and Malayalam. On track to trace over its pencil in pen.
And who’s to say my triangle will remain a triangle forever? Now that I call Bangalore my hometown, I find myself itching to learn to speak Kannada, if only to be able to have more natural conversations with rickshaw drivers and to feel a sense of community with the city. Simultaneously, I’m fascinated by Russian culture and its mind-boggling script, so different from anything I’ve ever seen before.
It’s entirely possible that my triangle could turn into a square or a pentagon in the near future, a mix of pen and pencil lines that map out the weird and wonderful geography that a lifetime can create.