“You know beta,” a friend’s uncle says to me, peering over plates of papad and Scottish tea biscuits. I’ve been stranded with him while my friend picks some others up from the metro station. We’ve been chatting away easily for ages though, and I get the sense that he is about to confide in me. “All of these young students have a bad habit when they go off to school in America. They adopt that sort of Yankee twang – absolutely undecipherable. I’m glad you haven’t fallen into that haan, take pride. What you speak, it is the Queen’s English.”
I am pleased, briefly, at the success of my valiant effort to sing-song my words rustily and dust off my “haina” and “arre yaar” suffixes. I swaggered them around the second I disembarked the plane, mildly gleeful after 16 hours of airtime, with that over-eagerness that smacks of insecurity. But with memories of my own 14-year-old self, giggling with my girlfriends over the one senior that came back after two months of the US and haggled in dollars and felt cold in Fahrenheit, it’s safe to say that I was paranoid of my own ‘abroadisms’.
It isn’t so much that my nine months in the US had given me an American accent – serrating my Rs and gurgling my vowels. Every time a hard R slipped from my mouth, I would in fact imagine the teasing that I’d get back home and make panicked references to the undoubtedly Indian ‘dustbin’ in place of the trashcan.
The way I spoke had instead dulled itself, my voice not quite knowing how to sing without its little Indianisms, sounding somehow forlorn and toneless in their absence. I have not to this day stretched a ‘can’t’ nasally (I’m convinced I’m physically unable to), but I have noticed a measured quality in my speech that my haphazard, cheery humming was never meant to have.
The friend whose uncle it was has returned now and it is the first time I have seen him in months. He studies in England, the laddish-yet-classy cheeky Nando’s to my garish McDonalds. When he speaks, it is unmissably British: his As somehow more oval and the stray ‘mate’ appearing every now and then.
He’s back with a friend that studies in the States too – who’s actually visited me a couple times already back at college. Here his twinkly crow’s-eye-crinkled eyes are just how I remember them, his Bengali lilt firmly in place again. But I still remember being thrown off-balance for a split second when he introduced himself with a shortened, easier (anglicised?) name to my college friends, unchanged except for this minor detail but somehow still jarring in memory.
The truth is, we’ve all changed in varying degrees in response to our lives abroad. What I might have once scoffed at as conformity, I read more as adaptation today, both willing and unwilling. Accents abroad are hopelessly entangled in politics and class. My experience in the fiercely liberal corner of the US, the north-east, is incomparable to those friends floating around in the midwest. The worst I endure for my Indian accent is insensitivity, or the one boy who tried to coach me on how to say ‘vegetable’ right at a restaurant (it’s all in the V). Other slights include simple offhand comments on how my ‘English is so good’ or my classmates unwittingly excluding me from class discussions because I can tell they’ve forgotten how to say my name.
Others’ experiences are often more sinister. Strange men yell at my friends to “go home” while they’re driving with their families, the first instance of borders rendering even our parents helpless. In the UK, someone familiar to me was beaten up by drunk men for having the audacity to be at a bus stop late at night. Another was on the receiving end of ugly slurs the day after the Brexit vote. Suddenly, we don’t feel as foolish to give up the principles we held as judgmental kids – if it means we feel a little safer, or set our college friends on edge a bit less.
When the world is so menacing, I can only wish accents were as innocuous as mere tools to fit in, or elevate ourselves somehow. As outward demonstrations of our visa stamps, or our too-expensive education bandied about to feel superior. When wielded by 18-year-olds feeling unwelcome for the first time in their lives, accents transform into a defence, one that’s a little sad in its inadequacy. An accent becomes just another one of those things that make it easier to joke about our status as legal aliens, wondering all the while whether or not we truly want to lose what it is that makes us alien – whether that overlaps somehow with what makes us Indian.
I turn to Uncle again, and realise he is still waiting for my assent to his idea, maybe even a thanks to the compliment. I think I recognise this affliction, a tendency to read ego and Western ambitions in the Yankee twang but be blind to the same in the idea of a ‘Queen’s English’ 70 years post-independence. It’s present in other peculiarities of the Indian elite too, when it’s termed ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘firang behaviour’ at the whims of some unknown god.
“No-no, uncle,” I reply to him finally. The colloquial no-no. Negation’s response to the Indian ‘yes’ head bobble, my final reassurance to him and perhaps myself as well. “I don’t think that’ll happen to me.” Because what he never knows will perhaps not hurt him.
Aparna Shankar is a 19-year-old student at Princeton University. She lives in New Delhi.