I came across a post by the always interesting Manish on Ultrabrown, frothing about the way Indian accents are depicted by whitefellas (in or out of brownface- or brownvoice in some cases), especially Apu in the Simpsons.

He has many problems with the accent used by Apu (as spoken by Hank Azaria): it is ‘crudely done’, ‘a poor imitation’, ‘a travesty’ (of the real Indian accent), ‘crudely pasted’, ‘synthetic’, ‘artificial’ and how ‘gut-level revulsion this churns up’ in him just talking about it. Strong words and fair enough, being his opinion. But he goes on to say in a couple of places including a comment I left, that this caricature of an Indian accent is racist, including this:

It’s not that only desis are allowed to do desi humor. It’s that the version done in the U.S. exists only in the U.S. and Britain and is done only by white people — it’s artificial. It’s badly done partly because the language lacks Hindi phonemes (as you know, Spanish and Hindi have soft consonants missing in English), but also because of a racist lack of interest in doing it well.

Let’s look at this a little closer.

Manish feels that it is racist because it is a poor imitation or ‘synthetic’ version of an Indian accent and because it creates or perpetuates a stereotype of Indians in the USA and UK. But that is just caricature, isn’t it? It can be offensive but most humour is offensive to one party or the other.

If racism is

a belief system or doctrine which states that inherent biological differences between human races determines cultual or individual achievement — with a corollary that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others (Wikipedia)

then doesn’t that rule out cultural differences such as language or accents? Is the way we speak English (and there are so many regional accents for Hinglish) a characteristic that defines us as a race? In that case, if I spoke with a plummy British accent would I then not be part of the Indian ‘race’? What a great way to escape racism!

And which Indian accent is acceptable then? Is is that of the Bengali with the b’s instead of the v’s, is it that of the Maharashtrians with there hard ‘t’s and d’s or the Malayalee english pronounciation with the oily vowels and funny consonants? Well, the accents of UK desis Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal are held out as an example of an Indian accent done well. Oho, so it is the accent of the upper middle class ‘convent’ or ‘public school’ educated upper middle class kids that meets with approval! But that is no more Indian than the faux upper-class stentorian English accent that we used to hear on All India Radio’s news from Surajit Sen and others in the 70’s and 80’s.

And what is the subtext when Sellers- or now Steve Martin- send up the French in the Pink Panther films or how the German accent is stereotyped by Hollywood (ve haff our vays). Is that racist too?

And here’s the nub. All these representations of Indian or other accents are but caricatures. Why should they have be close to the real thing? Whether they were too lazy to do the work to get it right (as Manish and another comment leaver have said) is besides the point! It’s meant to raise a giggle with the target audience! Yes, naina, it was mocking of Indians as is most humour mocking of some person or group. You don’t have to like it but you cannot wheel out the ‘R’ word for someone making fun of your accent! It might be also insulting, revolting, boring and any number of other adjectives, but racist- I don’t think so.

To accuse people of racism seems to be the first resort of the educated Indian whose hypersensitive antennae perceive a slight where none may be intended.

As the thoughtful comment by musical points out

Hindi movies take the cake when it comes to racial and linguistic stereotyping. Even desis mock each others accents! What about all the South Indians saying Ayyo Rama, all the Bengalis saying Uri baba, all the Punjus saying Balle Balle, all the Sindhis saying Vadi Saayin-all bad stereotypes, all perpetuated by us, the desis.

These are all examples of one social class making fun of another social class for general amusement. It really has nothing to do with race. Given time the stereotype of the Indian in the West will change from the mindless depictions of Sellers, to that of the current call centre agent stereotype to something that more accurately represents the Indians that people in the mainstream meet.

No, girls and guys, un-knot your chaddis, relax the sphincter, unwind yourself (as Kaa the snake said to Mowgli in The Jungle Book) and put a smile on your face. Then go and make some more jokes about Mumbaiyya Hindi, Malayalee English or Punjabis with American accents (heard venture capital guru Vinod Khosla talk?).

In short, get a sense of humour.

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Hinglish hits the radar!

Friday, 5 January 2007

I like a lot of stuff that comes out from NPR but was not impressed by this little news story about what they call ‘Hinglish’ or a blend of Hindi and English that we speak in India. Listen to it here:

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Firstly, why should anyone be surprised that India has it’s own version of English- after all America, Ireland and Australia, to name a few, all do too. Secondly, some of the words that they find quaint probably would not be by a British audience- so NPR makes the mistake of interpreting things through its own rose-tinted glasses. And lastly, does anyone else notice a hint of more than amusement at the tactic of asking someone to read from the Wren & Martin grammar book? I felt it was not just the content of the book that they were bringing to our attention but they were also having a dig at the accent and diction of the reader of the passage too.