Accents are funny things. Unless a person is continually made aware of the fact that she has one, the thought might never occur to her. Accents change or are perceived differently depending on who’s listening. All accents are not equal: some carry social capital while others are targets of derision, so that people assume or cultivate the former while downplaying or destroying the latter. And as with skin color, so with accents: a dominant one does not recognize itself as such; it is only Others, those who speak differently, who are considered to have them.
As a child in Kharagpur, I was expected by my parents, each for his or her different reasons, to speak the Queen’s English, and I did—at least, when I was with them. But with my friends I automatically switched into the reigning Anglo-Indian; if I hadn’t, not only would I have been seen as a snob, especially in those early post-Independence years, but I simply would not have been understood. When friends came over to our house to play and my mother spoke to them, I had to step in and translate. This was hazardous, because if my father had caught me speaking in the sing-song Anglo-Indian accent, I would have been in trouble.
During my two-and-a-half years at the British Embassy School in Athens, Standard English was the norm, so my Queen’s English became naturalized. Ironically, during my brief stay at Gospel Oak school in London when I was nine, not a single child in my class had that so-called standard accent. When the class had to select someone to recite William Blake’s poem “Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?” at a school assembly, they chose me, the outsider. Why? Because “she doesn’t have an accent”! The children living in London, the insiders from my perspective, felt themselves to be not-quite-normal because they spoke in the diversity of ways people actually speak; while I, living outside of the country, had been taught to cultivate “BBC English.” (Nowadays, of course, fewer BBC broadcasters use Standard English—regional and working-class (or faux working-class) accents having become not only acceptable, but trendy—unless, perhaps, they are British Asians.)
My accent now adjusts reflexively to blend in with my milieu. Even so, when I am visiting my English family they consider it wholly American, while back in the States I still get regular comments on “that lovely English accent.” The simple truth is that people recognize difference, not sameness. When I took Nikhil with me to India at age 13, I remember him squirming with embarrassment upon hearing my re-Indianized accent among my Indian family. Yet I was not switching it on deliberately, just doing what had become second-nature. In fact, it would be difficult for me to identify my “real” accent, since it is more accurately a continuum, a range of different registers that changes with my environment.
Much as my accent has Americanized itself over the more than forty years I have lived in the States—and I still remember my mother crying out as if in pain when she first heard me roll my r’s American-style—I wonder why I have retained so much of my English accent. Is it an affectation, as some people may suspect? Is it that by age 15 one is fully formed, and one’s accent, like the tastes and values one was raised with, are now permanent, imprinted with indelible ink that can only fade but never disappear altogether? Or is it that I have regularly received positive reinforcement for it, so that there is little incentive to change? Would I have had a greater incentive to cast off my accent if it had been considered funny rather than charming?
I confess that I have expressed contempt in the past for those who take the “accent reduction” classes advertized in newspapers like India Abroad that cater to Indian Americans. But I feel ashamed of that contempt, because Indian accents, which I love, and never tire of listening to in all their rich diversity, are, unlike English accents, regularly ridiculed in both the United States and Britain, and can be a real handicap for the immigrant seeking to assimilate to a new and sometimes unwelcoming society. The Indian accent has been so caricatured, as exemplified in Britain by Peter Sellers’ Indian doctor in the song “Goodness Gracious Me” and his films The Millionairess (1960) and The Party (1968); and in the U.S. by Hank Azaria’s Apu, the Indian convenience store owner in The Simpsons. So much have these caricatures become the norm, that—as depicted in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia—Indians themselves looking for acting roles are not considered “authentic” unless they exaggerate their accents into mockeries of themselves. Not so funny. No wonder many would rather seek to erase them.