The Apu Paradox: How I Bear the Burden of My Canadian Accent in India

Social Commentary

The Apu Paradox: How I Bear the Burden of My Canadian Accent in India

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The first time I had to change my accent, I was six years old.

My family had just immigrated to Canada from Dubai and I, a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, was super pumped for my first day of Grade 1 – until I reached my new school and realised that everyone around me spoke differently than I did. Back then, I spoke like any Indian kid. To me, my new classmates sounded like characters from Cartoon Network shows and Disney movies, the ones I’d mimic for fun.

Without thinking, my six-year-old self — oblivious to the weight that my diction would come to have in the following years — decided to bring my favourite impressions to life. At the time, I was the only student in class to be born outside the country; the only one who truly lacked the languid vowels and nascent Rs of my peers.

Our move to Canada was the first time when I felt burdened by the stomach-churning fear of being the odd one out. My “otherness” defined by my pronunciation, based solely on how I was saying words instead of what I was saying and what I intended them to mean.

I was still luckier than a lot of immigrant kids who arrive in a strange country, only to find themselves crippled without knowing its language at all. I’d always been an English enthusiast. I’d read aloud anything I could lay my hands on, be it a newspaper or a pamphlet, my elder sister’s textbooks or a dictionary. I loved tongue-twisters, putting on skits, and making up limericks. But suddenly, I had no control over the very words that had been my home. For they were no longer my own.

Instead, they all belonged to Apu.

In North America of the ’90s, Apu was a stand-in for all Indians, while Indians were a stand-in for all brown folks. Millions of people from myriad ethnicities were reduced to Apu – a white guy’s absurd impression of a Tamil convenience store owner, simply because there was nothing else. Somehow, kids who’d never even seen an episode of The Simpsons could do the “Apu voice” with ease, as if they’d grown up listening to it. This was a time before Raj Koothrappali or Mindy Lahiri could tell them what Indians really sounded like. It was also a time when the enunciation of an entire subcontinent was reduced to a punchline, promptly making its possession culturally inferior.

An accent is only an expectation unmet; an excuse for making you feel like you don’t belong. But if someone cares enough to hear you, they’ll find a way to listen. Accent no bar. What aboot that, eh?

Perhaps a small, yet stubborn part of my six-year-old self was determined not to be reduced to a ridiculous accent. Soon I started impersonating the Canadian accent and used it as a shield against otherness, switching effortlessly back and forth when I spoke to my parents and with my friends. By the time we became citizens, my accent became real – as much a part of me as my new passport. It helped me fit in; it ensured that I would never be just another Apu.

Except, it didn’t last for long.

By the time I turned 14, I was back in Mumbai, the city where I was born. My words were an anomaly. Yet again. To everyone around me, I stood out like a teetotaller on a Goan beach. The very accent that made me inconspicuous back in Canada was the glaring reason I was considered “firang” in the country I now call home.

As a teenager, I found myself being othered once again. It bothered me that I didn’t know the right way to speak any language and I was back to feeling like the immigrant abroad. As soon as I opened my mouth to say “hello”, people would promptly ask me where I was from, usually following it up with disbelief, amusement, hostility, or gleeful renditions of South Park’s “Blame Canada”.

At school, my classmates would frequently greet me with a hearty, “How aboot that, EH?” Kids who had no trouble obsessively following F.R.I.E.N.D.S and Grey’s Anatomy, would often insist I repeat myself so that they could understand my words better. But what they were really asking me was to submit to a rigid notion of an Indian identity, one where my words aren’t marred by the dialect of a different country. Yet, they’d happily digest the patois-tinged speech of a West Indian cricket commentator and praise the white expat kid who could barely sound out the phrase, “Aap kaise ho?”

For some reason, the combination of someone who looks Indian but sounds foreign was a step too far for comprehension. The Apu problem had caught up with me again, in a country where people were used to both Indian representation and western, but were rarely accustomed to seeing the two come together.  

So I kindly adjusted, slipping into the local cadences and vocabulary, trying my best to speak a more authentic Hindi with pronunciations that were no longer familiar to my tongue. In a country comprising countless mother tongues, my strong Canadian drawl was no longer a punchline. Instead, its mere possession made me a paradox – an out-of-touch firangi who doubled up as a fake, superficial snob. Was I a real Indian who was putting it on, or an ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) who knew nothing about India? Apparently, you can be both. (Worse for a proud Canadian was the assumption that I was from the US.)

In these Trumpian times, this last misconception is the only one that still bothers me.

Over the years, I have mastered the art of switching accents. There are times when I break out in my “asli” Indian accent just to avoid the predictable pattern of questions, whispers, and misunderstandings. I take to speaking Hinglish like a local to bargain my way through the tourist trap of Linking Road. And don’t punish my tongue for letting my words reveal their varied roots anymore.

It took decades of struggling with my accents for me to grasp that no matter how you say something, people will hear what they want to anyway. I realised that my in-between accent would always make me a Canadian in India and an Indian in Canada.

An accent is only an expectation unmet; an excuse for making you feel like you don’t belong. But if someone cares enough to hear you, they’ll find a way to listen. Accent no bar. What aboot that, eh?