a crisis of Indian-ness
“Oh umm, okay…”
The beginning of a semester marks my bi-annual ritual of awkwardly correcting professors as they mispronounce my name.
Nothing about my name had ever posed a challenge to anyone in my life before I made the trip across this unholy, overheated planet where my poor name would find itself mutilated again and again. My baby sister could say my name long before she could wrap her tongue around her own (Revathi—RAY-vuh-thi). My name had never posed a problem to people with lisps or t/th speech impediments. It was correctly pronounced by three-year-old children, with whom I’d had almost no contact. It was accessible to old-toothless people, with whom I’d had too much contact (think racist, sexist, homophobic grandparents). It was an easy name to correctly yell from one end of a classroom to the other in anger and frustration (as in, “YAMINI! Why are you asleep again?”).
Well, no longer. Gone are the days when people were comfortable enunciating my name. Now when I’m at the mailroom, I have to stand close to the counter because the kind soul with my parcels will invariably say my name more softly than Jack or Patrick or Angela. And if I’m not within hearing distance of an underconfident whisper, I may never get my hands on my mail again.
People’s difficulties with my name have prompted me to realize the ways that my Indian (colonized British) pronunciation was different from the American (also colonized British, but we’re talking very different timelines) pronunciation. I tend to emphasize the first and fourth syllables when I speak, while I’ve heard most American speakers emphasize the second and fourth syllables. Say the word repetitive to yourself. Now, assuming that you fit into the binary (I know—all dichotomies are false dichotomies, just roll with it) of pronunciation styles I’m talking about, you might notice a pattern of focus on specific syllables.
Did you say rep-ET-it-IVE or REP-et-it-IVE? If you’re having a hard time with the second one, try rushing past the second and third syllables like the “t” between them is a clipped rolling “r.” The small inflections in the way I pronounce words are the only things that remind me everyday of how Indian I am. Given the wider, healthier definition of what it means to look American, it’s now harder let the color of my skin indicate my nationality. My Hindi is heavily accented, and my Telugu is fragmented and exclusively conversational. My hair is too purple to be Indian, or belong to a person with Indian parents. I have a religion only in name, and maintain no meaningful Hindu traditions or customs. I have no understanding of Hindu astrology (it’s called Jyotisha—even my mum didn’t know that. I had to Google it.) I didn’t grow up with Indian music, television, or films.
So, this is all I have: my name, the way I pronounce four-syllable words (BEN-ev-ol-ent or ben-EV-ol-ENT), the fact that I still use the word “git” and “crib” every once in awhile (they mean “idiot” and “whine,” respectively), and my undying love for aloo-ghobi. (It’s ghobi, not gobi, despite what the Kabob and Curry menu insists. Gobi is the name of a Mongolian desert.)
This crisis of my Indian-ness has left me with the crippling fear that I might lose my accent, that the hard constants and stretched middle-vowel sounds may creep into my daily vernacular and never make their way out. My soft “t”s might abandon me forever, and I might forget how complex-“h” syllables work. I monitor myself constantly, chastising myself for drawling my way through words like “Wayland” or “Asking” (it’s asking, not aaaasking). I pinch myself every time I say; en-velope instead of on-velope, or car-ma instead of kurr-ma.
I live with the constant fear that if I do lose my accent, my family may disown me. Their own hybrid accents, South Indian and Gujurati, will be in stark contrast with my generically-Indian-morphed-into-East-coast-accent (one very reminiscent of the ABCD—American Born Confused Desis—relatives we’ve mocked for years). Perhaps my accent crisis is really just a fear that my parents will mock me every time I go home. Whenever I talk to them, I worry that they may hear the emphatic a’s or the clipped t’s, and no longer be as gullible to my pleas for money as they have been in the past.
My attachment to my accent is one that I have struggled with for a year now, and though it gets easier every day to repeat myself when I’m not understood the first time, it will never be as easy as pretending I don’t have an accent at all. Perhaps the temptation to make myself more pliable appeals to me because, as a woman, I’ve always wanted to avoid being an obstacle, never presenting a challenge to those I interact with and taking up as little space as I can. By fighting my desire to seamlessly blend into the background, I’m challenging myself to manspread my legs across the subway seat of language.