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Dr Shyam K Bhat MD is a
Psychiatrist and Integrative
Medicine specialist.

He is board certified in
Psychiatry, Internal
Medicine, and
Psychosomatic Medicine,
with additional certification
in clinical hypnosis

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Accent Envy


An old friend of mine called me the other day from London, after we reconnected on Facebook.

“Shyam,” the voice said. “How are you? This is Jay, It’s been a long time.”

It took me a few seconds to realise that this was indeed Jay, my Malayali friend who had previously spoken with a mild and pleasant Malayali accent.

So what was this? Why was he sounding like Sir John Gielgud?

Should I call him on it? Should I say, “Iude why are you speaking like that?” Or would that be offensive, like asking a man wearing a fake Kolex, “Iude, is that really a Kolex?”

I had thought that people like Jay were beyond this. Back in school, he had never been what one might kindly refer to as “aspirational”; he had never been the sort of fellow who aped the latest trend, or did what was considered “cool”. In fact, in his day he had been considered a bit of a rebel, always questioning authority and seemingly destined to forging his own path.

But now as we spoke, I could hear in the fake perfection of his accent the pressures of immigration, the perils of having to forge an identity in a foreign land where Indian accents are still subtly mocked by stand up comics and movies and talk show hosts.

Even comic god Russell Peters is not beyond resorting to mimicking the Indian accent for the sake of a few cheap laughs. Our own stand up comics do it too, but by specialising in regional accents – Tamilian, Kannadiga, Punjabi, and so on. I felt a bit sad then, for Jay, for myself, and for all Indians labouring the inferiority complex of speaking a language that is still not seen as our own.

How was I any better than Jay? Although I had resisted trying to sound American during my ten years in the US, I had changed the way I spoke at work, with my colleagues, and with anyone American: I slowed down my speech, enunciating my words with more care than I did with my Indian friends. As a consequence, a few people remarked that I sounded English. And what was worse, (believe me I deplore this reaction in myself as much as you do), I even felt vaguely complimented that they thought I sounded British.

My accent envy showed itself up in other, more subtle ways. When an American would ask, as they often did, “How did you learn such good English?” I would feel offended by their surprise, perhaps at the thought that they would ever doubt that my English could be anything but impeccable. “I grew up speaking English,” I would say and sometimes unnecessarily add for emphasis, “I think in English and dream in English just as you do.”

It took me a whole year to understand that the only reason that I was offended by an American’s surprise at my fluency in English was because I’d made a value judgment: along the way I had unfortunately learned to equate the ignorance of English with an inferior education.

There is a phrase for people like me, I had learned a few years ago, when, in my first year of medical school, some in the senior class seemed to take offence at my relative inability to speak in Kannada, as opposed to English.

“You are a Thames Thikka”, they said to me a few times, and another classmate, who spoke English with a curious Welsh lilt, the result of a childhood in Zardiff, went through most of college known as “Thames”.

That phrase literally means “Thames Arse”; a classmate explained it to me in this way: “It means that you are acting as if you have washed your arse in the river Thames.”

What a remarkable epithet! Full of all kinds of socio\political connotations, which I would urge you to ponder.

But after a few years abroad, I began to miss not knowing another language, a mother tongue, with an accent and vocabulary and cultural references that would have defined me when someone said, “You speak English so well.”

I envied people like my friend Kamath, who spoke English fluently and unashamedly in an unaffected accent, and also spoke his mother tongue, Tulu with equal felicity.

But then one day, I went out to a bachelor’s party  Yemi, a Nigerian friend of mine was getting married.

The details of the party themselves are the subject of another column, but what struck me was the accent of the other Indian guy there, Biju, who like me had an itinerant life. He had spent his early childhood in Nigeria, then India for ten years, and after that had been in the US for five years.

Although I sometimes struggled with the use of an accent, feeling vaguely guilty about trying to speak slower for my American friends, and embarrassed that I was speaking in a different accent to my friends from home, and possibly – and I was not even sure here – in a slightly different accent and rhythm with my parents, Biju demonstrated an entirely different approach.

When he spoke with me, he did so in urban, Indian accented English, with all the familiarity of my friends at home. But when Yemi asked him a question, he answered, without missing a beat, in Nigerian accented English, “E no go better, I do not believe it, aje pako,” he said, and then, a few minutes later I was impressed to hear his American accent as he approached a young lady waiting outside the club, “Hey how are ya? This place any good?”

He had demonstrated a simple truth, that accents are languages and just as you might switch languages while speaking with people from different countries (if you were fluent in several languages), you can also legitimately switch accents.

When you, without embarrassment, switch accents in order to facilitate communication, then that is far more authentic than changing your accent permanently.

“You still on the line?” Jay was asking, in his British accent.

“Still here, man,” I replied, “Welcome to Bangalore.” I felt my accent changing, its location moving rapidly towards the bank of the river Thames, and I had to stop myself before I added, “Old chap.”

 


They Just Can’t Kill the Beast


I went to a pub recently after a long hiatus, and they were playing the same songs that I got drunk to in my turbulent adolescent years in pubs all along MG Road.

“Retro night?” I asked the bartender. He shrugged and smiled enigmatically. I contemplated the possibility that a compilation of these songs had been handed down from pub owner to pub owner, that these songs were not really popular with the public. But I heard the songs again at another establishment on another occasion, and then again at a karaoke night in another restaurant recently, where the most popular songs were these same old favourites.

As James Bond observed, “Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

Conclusion – Old rock songs never die; they go to Bangalore and live forever.

Of all the rock and pop songs ever recorded in the western world – and who knows how many there are? – about a dozen are perennial favourites in Bangalore, songs that were already classic rock when they were first popular in Bangalore in the 1980s and ’90s and are positively ancient now, but, it seems, loved by all.

The playlist includes Clapton’s “Cocaine”, Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, Guns N Roses’ “Paradise City”, The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”, some Pink Floyd and The Doors for the more psychedelic minded, and inexplicably, Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69”. Inexplicable, because despite its all-American lyrics, we seem to love singing along to, “Bought my first real sixstring, at the five and dime”. Must be all the Archie comics we read.

But the song of all songs in Bangalore, a song that for many of us I suspect was the first song we actually learned the lyrics of, is “Hotel California”. Oh God, I have started to pray recently, spare me… please spare me this song. On that karaoke night, when I heard the opening chords of that dreaded song, it came to me that “Hotel California” might forever haunt Bangalore.

“On a dark desert highway,” she sang and even young college students sang along with an enthusiasm that reminded me of my own college years, when we sang these songs as if the lyrics contained hidden but barely detectable profundities.

“Cool wind in my hair,” sang a young man at the next table. He had as much hair as I do (see pic), but his sincerity and his passionate commitment to the song made me refrain from joking about it.

These old rock songs, it might be argued, are the staple of classic rock playlists on radio stations all around the world. That’s true, but in the rest of the world, the classic rock devotee tends to avoid other genres; not so in India.

In other parts of the world, the Jay Z enthusiast is not down with Dire Straits, and the Lady Gaga fan thinks Deep Purple is a totally cool hair colouring choice. But for the young Indian music fan, eclecticism is the norm.

The same girl who goes to sleep with a photograph of Justin Bieber under her pillow lets out a scream of delight when she hears the opening chords of “Cocaine”. The same guy who head bangs to Lamb of God roars in appreciation when he hears the opening bass line of “Comfortably Numb”.

So okay, the songs are still popular in Bangalore. But why? Why is “Hotel California” still Bangalore’s most popular song ever?

In order to answer that, we have to first delve into history.

All through the ’80s, western rock music was popularised by local talent. They were amateurs in the truest sense – they didn’t play for the money; in any case, there was little money to be made. In many cases, those old Bangalore cover bands were far better live acts than the original bands themselves. I have no evidence for such a radical statement of course, save for the anecdotal and empirical: I was at one of Iron Maiden’s concerts in Bangalore not long ago, and everyone who had seen the old Bangalore based Iron Maiden cover band Millennium agreed – the lads from Leyton performed like untalented understudies for the boys from Bangalore.

But if the bands were stellar, the fans were no less committed to the music. They had to be, by natural selection, the most enthusiastic of listeners. Save a few music stores on Brigade Road, and a few stores in that egregiously named paradise of cheap imports and pirated goods, the Burma Bazaar, there was no western music to be had anywhere.

We stayed up one Thursday night a month to watch a smug looking man from Delhi play five music videos on Doordarshan on a show called “Hot Tracks”.

It took real sweat to source and to own music, pirated cassettes and bootlegs and gifts from visiting relatives from the US copied late into the night on a twin cassette deck, in real time.

Before long, everyone’s favourite playlists were similar. The revolution was not televised, but it sure as hell was recorded and distributed. And if you ever made a mix tape for someone, you were a part of the process.

Bangalore had the perfect storm – local bands that covered the greatest western rock songs with a rabid ferocity, supported by a small but intensely dedicated tribe of fans. And so, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it came to be that these songs became a soundtrack of our generation, and then the soundtrack for this city. The appreciation for this peculiarly narrow selection of songs were passed on from senior to junior in college and school, between friends, and acquaintances; and because these songs were propelled by intense fandom, they continue, to this day, to be a part of everyone’s all time favourite songs.

But it’s been a while now and it’s time to lay this tired playlist to sleep. What I really want is to be able to go to a pub in Bangalore and have a beer without having to listen to “Hotel California”. Is that too much to ask?


Super Speed Dating (or the Swayamvar is Back)


What is common to a Rabbi and dating? Sounds like the start to a bad joke, but it is in fact a serious question, one that you probably don’t know the answer to, unless you googled it or you happen to be Arul Mani.

So allow me tell you the answer: speed dating.

That’s right. This ultra fast form of dating popularised in the 1990s by Sex and the City and other TV shows in the US was devised by a Rabbi of an ultra orthodox Jewish community, as a way to get Jewish singles to meet.

I first heard about speed dating as a single guy in my late twenties in Illinois. I thought the whole thing was for losers, and even though I went dateless on many a weekend night, the loneliness was preferable to the ignominy of attending such events. Speed dating, as far as I was concerned, was for men and women who were socially challenged, unable to meet and to speak to people in the real world.

I think that was the general perception back then. Even those who went to speed dating events seemed embarrassed by it, indulging in it almost furtively. One of my colleagues at that time in the US told me, when I asked how he met his wife, “We met at a speed dating event, but Sharon doesn’t like telling people that.” His wife smiled and said, “He was a journalist covering the event, and I had just gone along with a friend.” It was almost as if they wanted to distance themselves from the unsavouriness of that evening.

Fast forward a decade and I now live in Bangalore, a city that has morphed from the small town it was when I left 14 years ago into a cosmopolitan chaotic dizzyingly diverse and energetic hub of activity. Ten years back in Bangalore, dating was uncommon, speedy or slow, but now of course, times have changed.

Speed dating has come to Bangalore and is here to stay. A friend’s sister, in her late twenties told us that she had been to a speed dating event recently.

“How was it?” I asked.

She described the event, conducted in the now well known format. “You spend two minutes with each guy, then the organiser rings a bill and another guy comes to the table. You write down the names of those people you want to contact, and then they match it with the guys’ list and then they email those who matched with the contact numbers.”

“Sounds complicated,” I replied.

“Less complicated than regular dating,” she replied.

I asked her if two minutes was enough time to decide if she liked someone or not. “Yeah sure, I know right away if I don’t want to go out with a guy again, or if I am interested in spending more time together. It’s not like I have to decide about getting married right away.”

She didn’t really like most of the men she met – they seemed “not my type” – but, she added, “I met two guys who seemed nice, and I might meet them for a coffee sometime next week.”

As I spoke to her, I was aware that in attending this speed dating event, and in choosing her dates, she was exercising a level of autonomy that would not have been possible in the old India. But in the new India, the confident and independent single Indian woman is exercising her right of choice.

And this should not be surprising at all, because after all, the original speed dating was not invented by a Rabbi. It was an accepted practice in some segments of Indian society centuries, maybe thousands of years ago. We just called it a different name – swayamvar.

I completely understand if the word “swayamvar” has acquired a certain greasy quality after Rakhi Sawant’s reality show. But let me remind you that the process was a noble celebration of female emancipation and autonomy. The swayamvar was super speed dating, an ancient Indian solution to the universal female plea, “Where have all the good men gone?”

The father of the bride, usually a king, invited men from all over the country to compete for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

After several tests and examinations and trials, the bride would garland the best amongst the suitors and, it was hoped, they would live happily ever after.

Once I understood speed dating in the framework of female emancipation, in the light of our own cultural heritage, I changed my mind. I don’t think it’s for losers, at least not in this country. Speed dating is just one more example of an evolving, emancipated society. Thankfully for the guys though, this time it is more egalitarian, more equal – the number of men and women are equal and therefore, theoretically at least, kinder on the men than the original version.

But does speed dating really work? Isn’t speed the antithesis of intimacy, the poison to authentic interaction? Not according to the research. We are instinctive beings. We might think that we are logical and have a notion of the kind of partner we desire, but apparently our choices are made unconsciously.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink describes a study that examines choice. Participants in the study filled out questionnaires about their ideal mate, but these apparently did not match their subconscious preferences.

Other studies demonstrated that we decide whether or not we like a person (in the romantic sense) within three to 30 seconds of meeting them. Apparently there are unknown, almost imperceptible stimuli that act on the deepest recesses of our brains, drawing us closer to some people and pushing us away from others. One theory for example is that we are attracted to people with compatible genes, and we detect this compatibility through our olfactory nerves, through chemicals called pheromones. A few seconds is all we need and everything we use to explain our likes or our dislikes – he is a great listener, he has a great sense of humour, she has a beautiful smile – these occur after our brain has already made the choice for us, so to speak.

Speed dating just taps into our instincts, our ancient signalling mechanisms.

Of course, women are much better at listening to their instincts; the men often are confused by signals from the brain located in their nether regions.

To that extent, it is the woman who makes the choice and the man who competes for her attentions. We have seen this all before in India. Ladies and gentlemen, the swayamavar is back in town.


Keeping it Real


Sartre would have been fascinated by the social workings of contemporary Bangalore. Heidegger would have been inspired beyond insanity. And Socrates, I can just see him now, walking around the social scene urging everyone to look within, saying, with a wave of his wine glass, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

“Authenticity”, defined as “the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite social pressures and expectations”, is the striving to reconcile two sometimes opposing forces – the needs and motivations of oneself, and the expectations and norms of society.

In the old India, people acted in accordance with society; social institutions were still influential in the realm of private life and since individual drives were relinquished in favour of social propriety, people did not think much about authenticity.

Existential questions – what do I really want to do with my life? What does it really mean to be me? Who am I really? – were, if asked at all, buried so deep in the subconscious that the questions might as well not have been asked at all.

In old India, we lived out our lives in neat, pre-ordained roles: first, as a daughter or son, then as a husband or wife, and shortly after that as fathers and mothers, before playing indulgent grandparents, and then a merciful death.

Social norms and rules were followed so carefully, that the complexity of the individual, of being a person, was not apparent and to all outside observations (and often to the person himself) – the person was the role that they played in society.

But things are different now, of course. And if you really want to see how much we have changed, then all you have to do is observe a particular kind of social strata of urban Bangalore. You will notice that an increasing number of people are feeling a sort of “materialistic ennui”, the feeling of emptiness, of despondency, of dissatisfaction, and pain that is peculiar to societies that have plenty of money but have broken free of cultural moorings.

I went to an event recently that can be best described as a “Page 3” party. Lots of young pretty things, and older rich things, appetisers, free flowing booze, intrusive photographers, and lots of air kisses. “Wonderful outfit, love the hair darling.” “Meet Mr So and So, he’s the CEO of such and such” “How are you, sir, so wonderful to see you.” As I circulated through the crowd, I wondered – who here was really having a good time?

The hilarity seemed forced and artifice clouded the air along with the fragrance of Chanel No 5. As I helped myself to some brie and crackers, I overheard two women talking. They seemed to be in their early 30s.

“I don’t like fake people,” she said.

“Yes, me too, she is just so artificial,” the other one answered.

Later that evening, I overheard (believe me, I wasn’t trying – the lady’s voice just happened to have a piercing quality about it): “He is so superficial, I cannot stand it.”

To which her male companion replied, “Fake people, I don’t have anything to do with them.”

The new Indian is beginning to take an interest in selfhood, identity, and authenticity – issues that have long plagued Americans, who after all created a nation that was based on the premise of autonomous selfhood.

It is for this reason that Sartre would have loved a Page 3 party in Bangalore.

In our most comfortable environments, we are not aware that there is a difference between our outward behaviour, and our internal self. We act as if we are doing so without regard to what someone else expects us to do.

But when you are with a roomful of personas and not people, where how one presents oneself has become more important than who one is, then you cannot help but ask – what is fake and what is authentic?

The discordance between what we feel and what we display is normal, and human. But when a society goes through flux – as ours is now – then the social face is mistaken for the real thing. Instead of keeping it real, we are in danger of aspiring, of pretending, of layering our social interactions with the artifice of contemporary India