Off late I’ve realized that my accent has changed.
Quite possibly a lot.
Back home in India, I had a distinctly Bangalorean Tamil, accent (as opposed to Bangalorean Kannadiga, Bangalorean Northy, Bangalorean Bengali, Bangalorean Telugu and so on), but also one that reflected the fact that English was my first language. The language I dreamed in. English was, for all practical purposes, my mother tongue – alongside Tamil of course (us Dravidians are nothing if not linguistic elitists and could never accept a non-Dravidian language as our primary one, no matter how badly some of us might speak the languages of our ancestors.)
Nevertheless, while English was indeed my first language, it was a distinctly personal language, it was my English, spoken in my accent. Not American. Certainly not British. Not some generic, Hank-Azaria-voiced, North American stereotype of an accent.
For I was the son of Radha and Ananth, a mother and father who spoke to me in a Dravidian-Anglo linguistic mix of more-English-than-Tamil to me and my friends, and more-Tamil-than-English to each other and their families. (Add to that the Malayalam on my mother’s side, the Kannada in Bangalore, the Hindi of Bollywood, the Tamil of Kollywood, not to mention the languages of my friends – and you have a helluva mix.)
Now, Amma and Appa spoke to me in that mix of more-English-than-Tamil because I do believe that somewhere deep down they knew that I would have greater opportunities for myself in this Euramerican, colonial world if English was my first language.
Bless their souls. For all my Dravidian spiritualism (and occasional nationalism), I do know that English is one of the reasons I have made a transnational home across Toronto, Minneapolis, and Bangalore, with my awesome warrior-goddess of a partner and a burgeoning community of loved ones in each place.
Thus, my accent was one cultivated partly due to my parents’ foresight to ensure I spoke English from the get go, while ensuring that my Tamil wasn’t forgotten (even if slightly broken). It was a rich, beautiful-as-fuck linguistic environment I grew up in, quite effectively reflected in my accent.
When I left Bangalore in 2002 for a brief while to live in Gujarat, I think my English accent changed a touch, primarily because my spoken Hindi was forced to get much better due to the nature of my work there. (It still rankles me ever so slightly that my spoken Hindi is better than my spoken Tamil, but that will hopefully change as I start parenting.)
When I moved to the States, a mix of lefty political anger, racism that I faced, and a touch of assimilation anxiety in a white-dominated, settler-colonial society had me very rapidly shift to a more neutral accent. One that often had Americans remark at my “British accent” – making me cringe every time, while still secretly gladdening me since it proved I could blend in with greater ease into Euramerican societies when I needed to.
The accent shifted a bit with each move that I made. Baltimore. Boston. New Delhi. Minneapolis. Toronto.
Occasional racist jokes or references to crude Indian stereotypes by so-called friends in different North American cities shifted the accent in different ways. Often in defiance, but also in survival.
Whenever I visited friends and family in India, some would pass comments on my “American accent” or “Westernized accent”. And little shifts in the accent would occur each time. Usually quite subtle and probably unnoticeable to no one save myself.
But incrementally I do believe, especially after Sus and I moved to Toronto, I developed a rather unique transnational accent. One that shifts, depending on the company and environment, while still remaining very firmly mine. With Sus and I building community and family across three very different cities, two Euramerican, one Indian, the shift occasionally even catches me by surprise.
The best part about it, however, is that I’m able to experience laughter, satire, and sarcasm with the same linguistic diversity as the myriad sources for my proudly mongrel accent. The razor-sharp Tamil humor and Tam Bram cynicism of my parents, usually directed at our own communities. The laugh-out-loud goofery of Tamil and Hindi movies. Bollywood. Kollywood. Of course Hollywood. And British comedy. Good and bad. Plus a lot of American sitcoms. Good and bad. Not to mention my warrior-goddess of a partner and our daily humor. As well as that of all of our loved ones (including our cats).
That’s a lot of sources for one accent.
And that’s a lot of cultural crazy for one tongue.