Can we please move past the accent, idioms and the head shake?

India newbie Jil Wheeler dives joyfully into stereotypes about the country in the article  It’s like this, only  in The Morning News. The mention of tandoori chicken and Kingfisher beer in the opening sentence set off my cliche alert.    

It’s the end of a long night eating tandoori chicken and drinking Kingfisher beer  in Mumbai with visiting friends. Traffic has slowed to a few cars here and there, and we flag down a cab. The stereo is pounding Bollywood disco, but the driver turns down the volume to ask where to. “Turner Road,” I reply, or, more accurately rendered, ““Tournah Rrrr-ooad” with several up-and-down vocal inflections.

On Indian English:

The English spoken in Mumbai is, to my ears, nothing short of fantastic. It is a loopy, sing-song spaghetti mess with odd accents, quick flicks of the tongue, and excessive nasalization. Veg becomes wedge, Jil becomes gel, and films, flims.
The words themselves are enamoring. Indian English is stuck in a time warp—the problem is no one can figure out exactly which decade, or what century. A casual business email from a local colleague concludes, “The details will be intimated presently. Please do the needful. Most respectfully yours.” Wikipedia claims overly formal language is a holdover from the East India Company, but I think that’s a bit generous, even though certainly the language has more in common with letters my grandfather wrote than texts I send my friends. If “updation,” “prepone,” and “felicitate” aren’t already in your office vocabulary, they really should be.

On Indian mannerisms:

Oh yes, the Indian head bobble. Did I forget the bobble? Telling a cab driver “Tournah Rrrr-ooad” will get you nowhere unless you also insert the appropriate head waggle and/or bobble. The head bobble speaks volumes, but that is a Bombay discussion for another day.


It wasn’t a WTF moment, but the article left me somewhat disturbed. I don’t, for a nanosecond, think Jil Wheeler is channeling Katherine Mayo. But I do wish a journalist paid to visit India to record her impressions would move beyond the obvious.  The subject matter is new and comment-worthy to Wheeler, but (if I might presume to speak on behalf of a country) most Indians feel this kind of writing has been done to death over the past decades, if not centuries. We didn’t like it then, and we don’t like it now; please move on, Wheeler. 

Something else I’m grappling with: Wheeler’s piece seems to presuppose the existence of an absolute standard of correctness for accent and speech against which other patterns fall short. But such an “absolute standard” is, in reality, a construct of the writer’s particular circumstances. In other words, the writer finds the subject funny mostly because it is unfamiliar. Surely the mere fact of being an outsider ought not privilege the writer to such an extent?  In sum: I wish my beloved Morning News had an old India hand vet Wheeler’s writing before featuring it on their front page.

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6 thoughts on “Can we please move past the accent, idioms and the head shake?

  1. “I do wish a journalist paid to visit India to record her impressions would move beyond the obvious.” She sure does to do the steriotypical things from reading her article. If she was writing for a mainly U.S. audience I could almost understand it. But I like to see what’s not so obvious myself.

  2. Pingback: The expat’s new shoes: Bata Hawaii chappals « Brown Paper

  3. Maybe a visitor to India will first do the obvious, and if they survive or stick around, then move beyond the obvious.

    A learning curve maybe, or maybe not.

  4. @ Anil: I agree with your analysis of the learning curve, but Wheeler’s not just a visitor–she’s a professional travel writer, paid to move beyond the obvious.I think that’s part of the reason I was so disturbed by the piece.

  5. Pingback: breathe dream go » Blog Archive » Sub-continental divide: How to write about India

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