“Oooh, Rega, Rega! Do the other accent!”
A few friends and I are in a New York City dorm room heavy with smoke and beer burps. Despite how often I’ve heard it, the request makes me immediately self-conscious.
“I can’t just do it. Not on purpose like that.”
(My can’t rhymes with ant; the r in purpose is all American.)
My rehearsed demureness is bland enough – thank god – that the room’s attention shifts quickly. Someone is drunkenly trying to solve a Rubik’s cube. Someone else is setting up a Jenga tower. Three dudes in a corner are having a heated debate about America – “the concept, not the country,” apparently.
I am mute for the rest of the night. I laugh loudly enough at other people’s jokes to evade any accusations of having gone silent, but the reality is: once I’ve been made conscious of how I speak, it just becomes easier not to.
In my lap, my phone lights up with an incoming call from ma – incontestably the most welcome and terrifying sight in the world. A familiar guilt climbs into the back of my throat and I let it go to voicemail.
It’s night-time in Manhattan but where ma is, it’s tomorrow morning. I pour more $4 pink wine into my cup and grab the abandoned Rubik’s cube, focusing all my energies on spinning it toward homogeneity.
I have so much to talk to ma about. I miss her maniacally. But if I answered that phone call, I’d involuntarily “do my Indian accent”.
I can’t do that here.
Back in 2013, Kareena Kapoor appeared on the massively popular Koffee With Karan and wondered out loud where Priyanka gets her accent. In a later episode, Chopra retorted: “the same place where her boyfriend got his.” While the jab and comeback were both spun into magazine sales and page views, they earned little further thought.
In reality, Chopra was right. Both Saif Ali Khan and Priyanka Chopra spent their formative, most impressionable years split between India and abroad (the UK for Khan and the United States for Chopra). Their globe-spanning journeys to adulthood were hurdled by a menacing pressure to belong, out loud, in worlds that labeled them “foreign”.
(In other words: the desperation to “fit in” as a teenager is difficult enough in your own backyard. We all hustle to erase the traits that make us outliers. Now imagine doing it at a school where nobody looks like you, in a world where nobody talks like you. Of course you’d adapt. I know I did.)
Years later, despite both Khan and Chopra having established their A-list status in Bollywood, the remnants of those improvised identities reveal themselves in certain turns of phrase, in quiet intonations, in the particulars of their pronunciation.
I was 5 when we moved from Bombay to Chennai and, even after a decade of living there, I couldn’t speak Tamil convincingly enough to dodge the accusation that I “sound like a Northie”. Simultaneously, when we’d visit cousins in Delhi and Mumbai, my accent came under friendly fire for being “so Madrasi”.
When I was a teen, we moved to Muscat, Oman, where my parents enrolled me in an international school. I was surrounded, suddenly, by American military brats and Texans whose fathers worked for oil companies. These were kids who, by the 10th grade, had lived in 10 countries each. They were kind and culturally sensitive and they took me in, no questions asked. I loved them for it but still craved more. Like every 14-year-old on the face of the earth, I craved complete belonging.
“Did you have Cartoon Network growing up?” they’d ask, innocent and well-meaning, and I would hear: You just must be different.
“Was Harry Potter a thing in India?” became: Are we allowed to relate to you?
“How come your English is so good?” sounded like a scathing indictment of my right to belong.
(My love for writing blossomed then, borne of the fact that when I type instead of speaking out loud, my words carry their own weight, not tethered by an insurmountable foreignness.)
Over a few months, my South Indian lilt was sandpapered down, replaced by more boring inflections, and by the end of high school, my dual life had begun. Within those school walls, I sounded as American as the rest of them. As soon as I got home to my family, I was the thickly Indian-accented Chennai child that my ma and pa had raised and loved.
Now, nearly a decade later, I still fall victim to nagging thoughts about having picked up a "second" accent. For instance, yes, I know that it's problematic that some accents are granted more capital than others. Yes, it's problematic that markers of certain cultures buy access while markers of other cultures become barriers. It's problematic that even subconsciously, I knew adapting would be easier than reversing centuries of internalised racial paradigms. Of course I know these things. They keep me up until the wee hours, writing essays like this one.
But try explaining any of that to a 14-year-old at a brand-new school.
So, call it an identity crisis, call it weakness, call it a cultural selling out. Call it what you will. I didn’t have a name for it then and now, only “survival” comes close.
It was so instinctual that I didn’t even notice the transition until I was standing behind a podium at graduation, in place to make a rousing speech about hopes and dreams and changing the world. I’d spent weeks writing it and still, as soon as I spotted my family in the audience, I felt wholly unprepared.
I was an infant again, learning for the first time how to move my mouth to make words.
All my worlds are here, I remember thinking, as Chennai and Mumbai and America poured off my tongue, spiraling into giveaways. Which world do I speak like now?
My audible identity crisis followed me to New York City where, for five years, I silenced phone calls from my mother any time I was within earshot of American friends or classmates or colleagues.
The few Indian friends I had there all led similarly binary lives, taking calls in other rooms, going silent as collateral damage whenever our worlds collided. We navigated social groups on instinct alone, having calibrated how much we dared roll our R’s in each.
“I’m not doing it on purpose. I can’t do it on purpose,” my best friend Meera would often singsong in the privacy of our Water Street living room.
(Her can’t didn’t rhyme with ant; the r in her purpose went completely overlooked, desi style.)
“Nobody understands, na. It just happens,”
I did understand. I do understand. Meera and I lived in the Venn diagram overlap between Indians who live in India and Indians who, maybe briefly and maybe forever, crave assimilation elsewhere.
Now here we were, each with two accents at the ready at all times – both equally real, both really our own.
And it wasn’t just us. In the stunning heterogeneity of 21st century New York, I met hundreds of third culture kids – nomads who led shy, awkward, double-accented lives like ours, straddling their parents' culture and their own. I met people from countries around the world who, like me, had been converted by their geography into oral chameleons.
What’s hardest to explain, especially to those who’ve grown up within one unshakeable cultural universe, is that none of us are faking it.
The explanation, for what it's worth, is that it’s 2015, and racism is still alive and well. My accent – and those of several of my friends – became flexible over short years abroad because while it’s difficult to let go of such a deeply entrenched identity marker, it’s even more difficult to tolerate being assumed as less educated, less intelligent, less valuable, all on the basis of longer vowels and harder T’s. It’s straight-up exhausting, in fact, to have your thoughts and feelings and opinions ignored, filtered into the backseat by the way the words sound, before they had a chance to mean anything.
I envied my classmates from England and Australia and France, who retained their native accents even after decades abroad. The difference is that their accents – while carrying some distance – never brought on assumptions of backwardness. On the contrary, their accents come with labels like “cool” and “sophisticated” and “cultured”.
Ours only made us “foreign”.
It’s been a year now since I moved back to Bombay and tossed that American accent under a layer of Hinglish. My co-workers, born and raised a 45-minute rickshaw ride away, make occasional jokes about my lapses into “sounding like a firang”. My closest friend here gets seemingly limitless kicks out of comparing me to Lagaan’s assortment of British characters. They mean well, of course, and I joke along.
Still, I keep my cadences inconspicuous.
Now, when friends FaceTime me from Brooklyn and San Francisco, I swallow my guilt and let their calls go unanswered. I call them back hours later, when I’m certain that nobody I know is within earshot, and I comfortably shout a star-spangled “what’s uuuuuppp?”
I haven’t thought much about it at all, until this week.
My accent is on my mind because Priyanka Chopra’s is in the news again. As her Twitter account has no doubt informed every living being in the known universe, she’s playing American FBI trainee Alex Parrish on ABC’s Quantico, becoming the first Indian actor to play a lead on a major-network American primetime TV show. By any measure, that achievement is staggering, and there’s no question that India should be celebrating her success.
But on the contrary, when Quantico’s trailer aired four months ago, Indian tabloids and tweeters alike fixated on one thing: her American accent. The facts went easily overlooked: that Chopra is playing an Indian-American character and underwent dialect training to maximize her authenticity; that actors adopt accents for roles all the damn time (and, if they’re Nicole Kidman or Benedict Cumberbatch, they’re applauded for it); that Chopra spent some of her formative years living in Massachusetts and that, aside from being consistent with her character, her very real inflections are tied to her very real identities.
“Her accent is that of a shuddh desi Splitsvilla aspirant – you know, the one that sounds like a cross between Sonia Gandhi and Salman Khan,” wrote First Post. “What’s with that accent Priyanka Chopra?” asked headlines. “Make it staaaahhhpp,” said a modern-day Aristotle on Twitter.
Across the Indian internet, Chopra’s successes were dismissed before they had a chance, neglected by India’s rejection of how her character – not even Chopra herself – didn't match our cultural expectations.
When Quantico’s pilot aired earlier this week, too many Indians once again forwent genuine commentary on the show in favour of such intellectual exertions as “her accent is making me puke”.
It's easy to conclude that the hate stems in part from an unsolicited burden we’ve placed on Chopra to represent us. We’d rather see her bring India onto the world stage with her than let her stand on it alone and perform her art with no cultural umbilical cord attached.
In other words, the hate stems from a weird assumption that Chopra worked her ass off to make it to Hollywood, for India. For us. Now that she’s there, how dare she re-assimilate into the culture that shaped her adolescence? How dare she adapt for her work, rather than shout her Indianness from the rooftops at every opportunity?
(That luxury we happily granted to Hugh Laurie when he learned an American accent for House MD and to Renée Zellweger when she dropped her Texan drawl to become the very British Bridget Jones. Just imagine if all of England had protested Christian Bale’s American accent in The Dark Knight, or if Australia disowned Heath Ledger for not making the Joker more Australian.)
Chopra enters a long line of women of colour in mainstream entertainment who bear the burden of representation, simply because of an abject lack of it. Their own interest in being cultural spokespersons becomes unnecessary as they enter stardom, and they simultaneously lose the privilege to be considered artists without their identities attached. Mindy Kaling explained the dismissive side effect of that burden to Parade:
There are little Indian girls out there who look up to me, and I never want to belittle the honor of being an inspiration to them. But while I’m talking about why I’m so different, white male show runners get to talk about their art.
Chopra’s refusal to be tokenised clashes headfirst into the apparently widespread belief that all of us are only allowed one identity, and that anything else is fake and mock-worthy. Any signs that you're even attempting to belong elsewhere can compromise the warmth of your welcome back home.
While the Indian internet has rained hellfire on Chopra’s fluent American, I’ve felt a little more burdened by my own crises of cadence. I’ve been reminded of the various dismissals that come with sounding different – a weight I had trained myself to forget. It’s back in full now. Every jab about not being “Indian enough” because I let slip some Americanism. Every joke about my family owning a 7-Eleven because a "yaar" got out. The conversations India is having about Quantico have brought to the surface every instance in which someone, on either side of the world, has undermined what I was saying because of how I was saying it.
Simultaneously, in Chopra's refusal to keep either of her identities under wraps, I'm seeing my first ever example of someone who refuses to give a single fuck about the jokes and the jabs and the dismissals. While my friends and I keep our dualities as hush-hush as possible, Chopra is owning hers and blazing new trails, middle fingers in the air, with an aloofness that we didn't even know was allowed.
Some days, I let myself believe that I can solve this crisis once and for all by teaching myself a whole new accent. A third accent. One that’s a deliberate, perfectly concocted mix of only the most popular primetime newscasters from every national capital in the world. I giddily practice alone in the mirror, dodging tricky words (like “aluminum” and "burger"), auditioning myself for vagueness. I imagine a rulebook of modulations that will make me sound as uncontroversially pleasant as Katrina Kaif looks.
I dream of an accent version of this guy: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
But when I’m feeling more optimistic, I let myself believe that the world will come around. I let myself believe that with enough Priyanka Chopras in the mix, the world might take us as we are, confused speech patterns and all, like this only. The world might acknowledge that in the 21st century, fully formed adults exist who speak differently in different contexts, and that has nothing to do with conscious decision-making or pretension or aspiration. It just is. A benign symptom of a mobile world.
I let myself imagine a universe that doesn't run on untruths like cultural identities as being constant, cultural belonging as being exclusive, and cultural markers as being permanent.
For me and for millions like me (including both Priyanka Chopra and Alex Parrish) having multiple accents is neither negotiable nor remarkable. Our second accents are not betrayals. They are not performances. They aren’t passports of convenience, they aren’t tricks, and they certainly aren’t punchlines.
Our second accents are our secret survival instincts.
And while I hide mine in hushed passageways with my best friends, in typing instead of speaking out loud, in letting calls go to voicemail, Priyanka Chopra is streaming her identity crises to millions of viewers, week after week, spanning all of her worlds. Priyanka Chopra isn't faking anything; she's being more real than I – and several others like me – have ever had the courage to be.