As I mindlessly scroll from one reel to another on Instagram, I come across a woman, who in a very sultry voice says, “Oh my god, your Punjabi accent is so sexy, say it again!”
What follows then leaves me in a puddle. I am amused, confused, uncomfortable and liberated – all at the same time.
These reels, like everything else on Instagram, began with an influencer. Swarnim Karki and her friend Sulochna shared a reel with a “sexy” Nepalese accent. They then moved to the Assamese accent. Soon enough, there was one such reel for every region – Bengali, Punjabi, Oriya, etc.
The regional association of accents is not only limited to states, but also the structures within. People coming from small towns as opposed to big cities tend to carry an accent more often than not. A limited access to resources and the class divide all contribute to their companionship with accents. And when they move to bigger cities, they’re often shamed for it.
View this post on Instagram
Perhaps these reels amuse me because of their boldness, and confuse me because of their politics. I am uncomfortable because of their caricaturing, and they liberate me because of their audacity.
How then am I to make sense of it all?
The ‘sexy’ fetish
Shivangi Jalan, from Gorakhpur, recalls how when she had first moved to Delhi, people would point out that her accent was “cute”. When she looks at these reels, she says she finds it interesting that the word used here is “sexy”. In drawing a distinction between “cute” and “sexy”, she argues, “When you say something is cute, you mean it in a derogatory sense – “Oh you’re so cute, so naïve, you don’t know anything about the world.”
However, when you call something “sexy”, it becomes the opposite. This sexy accent becomes a quirk that is attractive about someone. This is a situation where someone is acknowledging something different about you, and saying that difference is what is attractive about you.”
Pondering over Shivangi’s perspective, I think of how the use of the term “sexy” paints these accents as aspirational. There’s a way in which these accents are telling people that the aspect of their personality they have felt small about is appealing. Further, considering the fact that they are trends on Instagram, makes people think that talking like this is acceptable and, to a large extent, cool. They turn these accents, which are also a marker of kind of marginalised identity, into a “fetish”.
Across various contexts in social debates, the term fetishisation does not carry positive connotations. Fetishisation is considered bad because of the way in which the fetishised subject feels dehumanised. It refuses to allow people full personhood. In this case, the fetishised person is reduced to just their accent, and any other complexity about their character is completely ignored. However, if this fetishisation, even for a brief moment, allows Shivangi to feel attractive, and enables her to feel powerful – is there then a way in which we can re-imagine fetishisation? Does fetishising break significant boundaries? Perhaps the fact that these reels have now moved on from accents to Farah Khan and Hema Malini denotes how they may be a celebration of the myriad ways of talking.
However, Shivangi also remarks, “The kind of differences that make you attractive also depend on your social context. The accents that are being talked about here, and the way these accents are being talked about, there’s a very specific class connotation. People in these reels are dressed really well, they’re wearing impeccable make up – so they’re attractive. However, if this were someone from a lower class, this difference would become uncomfortable for us. Then, it would stop being attractive.”
Susanti Vijaykumar, who is from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, points out the deep-rooted classist intent of these reels. “The pronunciation that they call ‘sexy accent’ and make fun of is from those who don’t have access to polished English, she says. “I get that it’s offering a stage to a type of accent that not a lot of people know about, but I think the intention of the reel is to draw laughter – which is problematic. So you’re not introducing it or normalising it, but just making it even more awkward or difficult for those who say things that way. So when someone comes to you and speaks that way next time, I doubt you’re going to think – ‘Oh, that’s an authentic way to adapt a language that isn’t your own”. I think it only makes you more entitled to laugh at it.”
In her argument, Susanti has raised a question around “intention”. It is interesting because all of Swarnim Karki’s reels have an accompanying caption that read:
“One request – please do not confuse accent with education and literacy. Every region, every country has their accent it’s nothing but beautiful. So please have a laugh, share, comment and give us a constructive feedback if you wish. These videos were made just for fun and not to ‘make fun’ or hurt the sentiments of any community in particular. We see 1000s of videos of people doing crazy stuff online every day. Please consider it one of them too. Like we have always said this is just a harmless joke so please don’t make it communal/racial.”
With this statement, it is clear that when Swarnim came about with this trend, her “intentions” were in the right place. However, it is rare that a creator can ever control the implications their content will have. Mere clarity of intention does not take away the consequences that follow. Even if her intentions were in the right place, the very fact that these reels were produced for “fun” establishes that we are not having a serious conversation about accents and all the political insinuations they are entangled in. On Instagram, accents are not merely a tool in the hands of the upper class but also the upper caste. Most recently, Yashraj Sharma pointed this out in his piece on Rest of World, where he argues how influencers from marginalised castes struggle to carve their own space in the hyper-aestheticised world of Instagram.
Rita Kothari, a professor of English Literature at Ashoka University, has spent her lifetime thinking through languages. When I send her these reels, her initial reaction is, “I love them, they’re so sassy and really show a middle finger to all forms of hierarchies in language!”
Thinking also of the role of humour, she adds how with these reels, “humour becomes a very important political tool, and we mustn’t undermine that”. Before concluding, however, she reminds me of the context that the English language in India has moved through.
In her book, Translating India: The Cultural Politics of English, Kothari makes an argument that also applies to accents. Talking about India’s awakening to bilingualism, she argues, how bilingualism “speaks of an urban and educated Indian’s sense of comfort in accommodating the two worlds represented by the two languages”. For Kothari, this a “postcolonial moment” where the two languages sit side by side. With accents, this juxtaposition becomes even more evident. Further, Kothari states, “This regional-cosmopolitan nexus may be seen as the Indian middle-class response to the worldwide use of English and its own need to maintain a linguistic identity.”
Accents too, then are a similar consequence of this bilingualism where embracing them becomes a response to embracing your regional identity. They break the rules of a “purified” English language.
However, in consonance with Shivangi and Susanti’s arguments about class, Kothari also asks, “We need to think about who gets to break these rules? While what these reels do are fantastic, and I am not dissing them in any way, I am also trying to contextualise. I am thinking of how much change are they really effecting? Will we accept a professor speaking like this at an elite institute? Perhaps not.”
With so many conflicting forces at play, I am reminded of the Spanish translator, Ingrid Roja Contreras’ essay in The Paris Review, where, talking about translation, she writes, “There’s a quiet space between languages. There’s a lag between interpretation, a no-place where, as the mind conjures meaning in one tongue and finds the equivalent in a second tongue, a portal opens. There is no language here, only guttural emotion. Everything feels unnamed, and, therefore, a bit eternal. Meaning cannot be lost here, because it is all there is. I love language, but this is my favourite experience of meaning: where language is doubled, and also erased.”
I think of the politics of accents as the place where we dawdle awkwardly, and learn to hold the contradictory multiplicities of our existence together. Accents are where we are both wanted and unwanted. They are what we desire and what we don’t. Ultimately, they are a moment of crisis where our regional identities are doubled (we are both local and cosmopolitan), but also erased.
Muskan Nagpal is an English Literature graduate and a Young India Fellow.