Tag Archives: authenticity

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.”


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

Take Back The Mango

There’s the messy way to eat a mango, and there is the wrong way. Unfortunately, I see an increasing number of people eating it the wrong way: any method that requires the use of a knife, a fork, or a spoon – cutting it and scooping it out, slicing and dicing it into cubes and using a fork and so on.

No, the right way to eat a mango is to eat it with your hands, your mouth, your eyes, your spirit. Look at it first, feel its heft in your hands. Smell it. Then peel the skin with your teeth, and with the juice running down your hands, sink your teeth into the mango. You see it, smell it, taste it, and even hear it, as you savour its sweetness. That is the full mango experience.

To those of you who have invited me over for dinner, please, do not cancel your invitations yet. I don’t eat with complete abandon in polite company. I realise that most people would not enjoy seeing someone devouring a fruit, making a slurping sound, drinking the fruit as much eating it.

But how did we ever get to this point in human civilisation? Why is eating with cutlery seen as more socially appropriate in a fine-dining restaurant than eating with your hands? Why do many people in the west, and in urban India, believe that eating with knives and forks is more civilised than eating with the hands? And why were knives and folks invented in the first place?

Spare me the more popular explanations: that water was scarce, that hands had to be kept clean, that the nature of the food demanded it, and so on. No knife or fork compares with the hand – our hands are the most versatile, portable, sophisticated, and discerning eating implements in the world, accurately assessing temperature, texture, quality, and safety.

No, knives and forks were not invented out of necessity. They were invented as a result of a deep-seated repression. Our collective psyches demanded it. Society, especially western society, demanded it. After all, the act of eating with one’s hands is a primal act, a sensual experience. A Freudian would even suggest that there was something sexual about it. Therefore, to repressive societies, the act of eating naturally, without cutlery, conveys a “rawness” of experience, a certain “savage” quality. When we consider that several cultures – Victorian England is a prime example – repressed even the slightest expression of sexuality to sometimes absurd levels, even covering the legs of sofas so as to not offend, it’s easy to see why they would also modify the act of eating. Repressive cultures attempted to reduce the sensuality of the act of eating, and they did this by increasing the distance between eater and food by introducing an intermediary – the eating implement. The contact between food and person decreased. The entire experience, one that is so basic to our very existence, the act of eating, became more and more stylised, and ultimately depleted and diminished.

Thankfully, some types of food still require the use of our hands.

So reclaim your food. Eat fruit the messy way. Take back the mango.