write to win

How to write for global readers in an Indian accent

The everyday truths that dictate stories from India often appear wildly exotic to the world

I’ll take any opportunity to compare any part of my existence to Gillian Anderson. In some interviews you’ll hear her speak in a flawless American accent, and in others you’ll hear her authentic British accent. This has nothing to do with her job as an actor though. She is bidialectal because of her ability to “code switch”, thanks to her upbringing.

Turns out there are a lot of us.

When speaking English, I can speak in the quintessential suburban American accent, and then switch seamlessly into the neutral urban Indian accent. Let me tell you, it’s led to many awkward situations. Most people accuse me of “putting on an accent”.

I was born in the US and lived there till I was ten. The first accent I learned was American. I was also familiar with the Indian accent because my parents talked in one at home. Then I moved to India and quickly learned to talk like all the other Bangalore kids.

But my US experience was far from over. At 18, I moved back for another decade. I’d get caught out once in a while – an American friend would catch me on the phone with an Indian friend and ask, “Who are you? Why are you speaking so differently?”

Although it felt like a dirty little secret, I learned that many third-culture kids were able to negotiate their world in two or even three dialects.

But it’s more than the accent – it’s our way of describing our world. An accent is merely flesh that sits upon our cultural ecosystem, since it comes from the way people speak around us: our words rounded, stretched, and curved by mother tongues and the realities we deal with in a certain country.

An accent is almost a separate language of its own, used in context to people and, often, relevant pop-culture, and inspired by things that took place before we were born. Perhaps that explains the many idiosyncrasies of Indian English.

As a writer who did a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing, I spent two years workshopping my fiction and creative non-fiction with fellow American students. The MFA tradition advocates “show” a lot more than “tell” when you write a story. It’s the golden rule to create decent literature in the classroom at least, a style that is now being adopted by many Indian writers in English as well.

Is this the “Indian” accent?

But look at the story-telling tradition in this part of the world. We’ve always been “tellers”, which makes us think of stories the way we did when we were kids, waiting for grandma to tell us another tale. We’re more than happy to be “taken out of the story” by an all-knowing narrator, who spells out all kinds of things for us in detail, instead of “showing” us scenes.

Compare, for instance, Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates with Orhan Pamuk or RK Narayan, and you’ll see how the classic American literature is much more scene-specific than Eastern literature. Today, contemporary literature has brought Indian writers under the same spell, who are here to prove they can tell a story just like their western counterparts, with a matching clipped style and disregard for bucolic narration.

Perhaps it’s fitting for the era we live in. We don’t need to be told about the setting in words anymore, with Google and YouTube always available to fill in visually. We need to get right into the story, right into the action. But are we at risk of losing an innate charm, one that mimics the way we talk, one that mirrors the reality of our socio-cultural environment?

The Indian “accent” relies on everyday sounds, and it shows in our writing. In India we say “un-English” things like “chee chee”, “thoo” or “aiyo”. We bring in the mundane sounds of the everyday when we talk: “My maid came early today, dam-dam-dam she was hitting the door”.

It’s probable that our past with oral storytelling has enabled the inclusion of these sounds – but with a caveat. Indian fiction writers who write in English still italicise these words and sounds. We treat our everyday life with italics: rasam, idli, and daal. It’s almost a plea to western audiences – here are our weird words, please accept them as exotic.

Everyday or exotic?

I had a rather shocked appreciation for some of my professors during my MFA years. Especially their ability to be bluntly honest about abuse, sex, their bodies, and gender. One of my satire pieces on the way hijras were perceived in India had managed to offend my entire class (the professor included). They had no cultural context to see it was satire. The inside jokes of cultural realities swing both ways.

My experience with creative non-fiction was particularly oveerwhelming when it came to the American personal essay. My peers could write an essay that started with their messy bloody periods and then compare it metaphorically to the relationship they had with an alcoholic father and end with questions to the larger world.

Such an essay could chronicle drug abuse with stunning clarity and self-awareness. It could try to reconcile the hatred one had for a sibling and the self-hate that came with it. These were personal essays that struggled with the individual freedoms that came with America: the body, gritty family secrets, loneliness. They were written with clinical introspection and an appreciation for self-deprecation.

But our narratives are culturally manipulated. The blunt individual introspection that’s so pronounced in American literature is something that we Indian writers are just starting to grapple with. We’re learning to write about families, our secrets, our sexuality, our icky-beautiful bodies, and then condense them all into one profound question posed to the world. But we also have other cultural realities to negotiate. Individuality can quickly be dismissed as over-indulgent in the Indian milieu.

Despite my admiration for the style of writing I saw in my MFA classes, my Indian sensibilities could see how this might feel like an unnatural way of telling a story. And how it could manipulate our mundanities into appearing something much darker, or more challenging, than the cultures in this part of the world make them out to be.

Cracking stereotypes

One of my stories in the fiction workshop was about a well-off suburban Delhi family, one of whose members runs over their maid’s kid by mistake. The story tracks a financial agreement the family makes with their maid. It provoked a remark from my professor: “Rheea’s story has been the most political we’ve seen in this class so far”.

I could argue that my peers who had written about the stark loneliness and intricate questioning of sexuality were as political. Some of them were profoundly aware that many Americans live in a global vacuum. The difference in writing styles is elementary when you think about it. Indian reality has more issues of class, access and gender upfront. Things like arranged marriages are still a fascinating concept in the West. Throw one in along with some class or caste conflicts, and you’ve got yourself a “political story”.

The literatures of India have allowed blunt social issues and truths to be interpreted in the West as something stunningly immense and exotic. America has isolation, a heavy value on individuality, and delightful respect for your freedom to say whatever your heart desires. It can be reflected everywhere in sparse, minute, and unforgiving detail.

In an era so globally accessible, linguistic fluidity and cultural inversion should count in critical thinking and literature. It might let writers productively exploit the fact that our stories of justice and injustice can be wildly self-contradictory and appear exotic. Our growing ability to see these global contradictions can crack literary stereotypes. It can also make peace with the fact that our words will inevitably be haunted by the ghosts of our past generations still trying to make sense of our world.

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