I grew up speaking multiple languages. Over hot summer holidays in New Delhi, I spoke in Hinglish—a conversational mix of Hindi and English. At home with my family, I speak a combination of English and Bengali, my paternal language that my mother adopted after she got married. And when I chat with my maternal grandmother, she speaks to me in Marathi, and I respond in English because my Marathi isn't quite fluent enough—but I adapt my accent to hers in order to make communication easier.
'Accents are supposed to be consistent. They are supposed to allow people a glimpse into who you are, where you grew up, and maybe even how much money your family had access to.'
So, I grew up having multiple accents but also going in and out of accents, the same way I did with languages, which made me the subject of cultural judgment both in the United States and in India. In high school in upstate New York, I rolled my r's and sharpened my t's. Back in India, I relaxed my d's and allowed my o's to be o's (instead of angling them toward a's), and I was made fun of often for this.
Accents allow people to make judgments—a posh British accent can make the silliest of statements sound profound: when the rain in the Spain falls only on the plane, people can place you comfortably and squarely into a specific place in their mind—and not adhering to a specific accent leaves others unsure what to make of you. Accents are supposed to be consistent. They are supposed to allow people a glimpse into who you are, where you grew up, and maybe even how much money your family had access to. But what happens if, like me, you grew up all over the world and feel at home in many countries?
My accent in the hallways of my upstate New York high school blended in with that of everyone around me. When my parents came to school events or my friends came home for sleepovers, I found myself retreating into silence, unsure of which accent to use. In front of my friends, I spoke to my parents in pure Bengali despite the fact that it would alienate my friends more than an Indian accent would. I learned to speak fast and mumble my words so there would be no space for an accent. For a child who loved words and languages and conversation, this was always a battle. And it also always confounded me because I see being multi-accented as a strength on par with being multilingual in today's world. But it isn't. Somehow changing accents is seen as fraud. It's seen as not committing to a country or a culture.
As an adult, I've learned to let the embarrassment go. Last month, in London, I found myself ordering a sausage roll with a heavier British accent than the Queen herself. Around my New Zealand husband's family, I, too, make every statement end with the inflection of a question. Whenever I spoke to my Canadian former roommate, my "abouts" became "a-boots."
What accent do I think in? Dream in? It varies. As do the languages in which I think and dream. My thoughts and dreams, like my words in real life, depend on the context.
Accents, to me, are extensions of languages. When I travel, I try to pick up words and phrases of the language of the place I'm going to, and I do the same with the accent—I do it out of respect. I don't do this because of a cultural identity crisis, I don't do this because I don't know who I am. I do this because I hold a multitude of cultures within me. I do this because I have had the good fortune of calling many places home.
'When my peers pretended I didn't understand English unless they sounded like Apu from The Simpsons, it was easier to laugh it off and pronounce laugh like "laff" instead of feeling awkward and angry.'
And I wish I could go back to my embarrassed, silent teenage self and tell her that to want to communicate is not something to be ashamed of. But it was difficult to feel confident of this in a school and a setting where I looked different from almost everyone else—the lilt in my words was a way to make up for the fact that my skin was brown and the food we ate at home was different. If my classmates were going to giggle and ask me if I rode a camel to school when I grew up in Delhi, the least I could do to hide my mortification and irritation was to sound like them when I responded. When my peers pretended I didn't understand English unless they sounded like Apu from The Simpsons, it was easier to laugh it off and pronounce laugh like "laff" instead of feeling awkward and angry. If I laughed at Apu with them, I could fit in a little bit more.And it isn't simply about race; it isn't simply about feeling a need to apologize for being Indian when in America. It goes both ways. My friends in Mumbai shake their heads and smile when I switch to my American accent to talk to my American friends. In a certain world in India, to have an American accent is to be fake, to try hard, to be someone desperate to not be Indian.
"I knew someone who had a stopover in JFK and came back with an American accent," my friend says with a laugh.
So when, over kebabs and Old Monk rum in my apartment in Mumbai, I get a FaceTime call from my best friend in Minnesota and I switch to an American accent to tell her I'll call her back the next day, my friends in India roll their eyes and see my tongue as a traitor. I then find myself, as I did in high school, tempted to ignore the call or mumble my words. But the accent I use with my Indian friends is as much or as little my "real" accent as my American one is. I don't remind them that I've spent more years outside India than in it, and so the fact that they don't hear a trace of any other accent from me is my attempt to fit in with them. Instead I tell myself that the fact that they make fun of my American accent means that my Indian accent is working the way I want it to: they see me as having grown up down the street—I am not an outsider.
'I hope the next generation feels the right to be proud of being a cultural chameleon.'
And perhaps that's one reason why, as an adult, I am drawn to acting or writing—professions in which my words are either not my own or are on a piece of paper. Writing lacks an accent, and acting allows my accent to be a performance—telling the audience about the character, not myself. Written words are neutral and performed words are nowhere near neutral, and in that space, I can allow the accent in my head to be whatever I want and need it to be. I no longer feel shame or embarrassment or irritation about my multiple accents.
Will it be different for the next generation? I hope so. I hope the rise of global Indian pop culture icons like Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone will allow us to be Indian when we want and American when we want, and everything in between. Pop culture trickles down, and one positive side effect of cultural globalization is the freedom to be in between cultures. I hope the next generation feels the right to be proud of being a cultural chameleon. I don't want to have to choose one home or one language or one voice. I want to belong to the world and, in turn, have the world belong to me.
Diksha Basu's novel, The Windfall ($26, penguinrandomhouse.com), comes out later this month.