After spending the first 18 years of my life in the Middle East, I went to India for college.
Six months later, I was talking to two classmates of mine, both of whom had been born and brought up in India. Interrupting a long story I was narrating, my friend Vikram asked.
“You were born and brought up in the Gulf, right?”
I nodded, wondering why he was asking something he already knew. “And Jacob,” he pointed to our mutual friend, “was born and brought up in Kerala?”
“Then why,” he asked, looking utterly confused, “do you have a thicker Malayali accent than him?”
Three months ago, I was getting to know a girl I’d met through a dating app. We’d migrated from the app to WhatsApp, and I was pleasantly surprised when she sent me a voice note a few days later.
I loved her voice, and not just in the normal way a single guy would. She had a gorgeous accent, very polished and neutral. The moment I heard it I felt a vague sense of unease growing within me. Clearing my throat I replied, by now aware of what was bothering me.
She replied, and I heard her chuckled as she admitted I had a thick Malayalam accent. It wasn’t a criticism as much as it was an observation, but several minutes later I was talking to a friend about how I can improve my accent.
If you can relate to this, I hope you weren’t able to improve your accent over time. Because the only thing that’d bother me more than the fact that I have a thick Malayalam accent would be the knowledge that others could change theirs while I couldn’t.
This isn’t a story about an impediment. It’s not similar to stories of people who’ve overcome stuttering or mastered a language that wasn’t accessible to them. Instead, this is a story about insecurity, and how I slowly learned to accept myself for who I am.
But you might not even agree with the premise. What’s wrong with having a Malayali accent? That’s a fair question, and in an ideal world, this article wouldn’t exist on PinkLungi. Well, most articles of mine wouldn’t. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and while you might consider a Malayali accent a matter of pride, the issue arises when others around you don’t. If you’re thinking that I should not care what they think, please, thokkil keri vedivekkalle (don’t jump the gun)!
Trevor Noah has a great stand-up bit about how different accents convey different impressions. He says that French sounds sexy while Russian sounds threatening, even when the words spoken aren’t. It’s an understandable notion. We are greatly influenced by pop culture, which is why British accents are used for fantasy movies and Latin accents are lazily employed for drug dealers on screen.
So the question becomes: what impression does a Malayali accent give?
I was reminded of a teacher who joined our school when I was in 8th Grade. Within a day, most kids were joking about his “Mallu” accent. Sure, it’s easy enough to make kids (and even adults sometimes) laugh by imitating a Malayalam/Indian accent. There are entire Hollywood “comedy” productions that revolved around such jokes.
But beyond the imitation, what does a Malayalam accent convey? Well, that depends on geography above all else. If a person in Thrissur can judge his fellow Malayali for his Trivandrum accent, can we really be offended when an Arab or an American judges us?
There are employers in the Middle East who might hire you because of your Malayalam accent because they believe Indians are more hard-working than many other nationalities. That’s a prejudice that works in our favour.
But earn enough money to then fly to the U.K. and someone might mistake you for a cab driver if you aren’t professionally dressed on your way to your accounting job.
There are girls in Indian colleges who lost any shred of attraction they might have harbored for me after they heard me speak. But there are girls in Canada who chuckle and think my accent is “cute”.
There are young Malayalis who’ve complained about being judged by other nationalities for their accent, only to then judge and mock their comrade who returns from abroad with a different accent.
Some Malayalis pay money to learn how they can eliminate their accent, while others fiercely stick to it, and many people on both sides judge the other for it.
But even after all the positives and negatives are taken into account, how you feel about your accent depends entirely on your life choices. A Malayali engineer is generally less bothered about the fact that he rolls his “R’s” than a Malayali news anchor would be.
Here’s why I’ve been bothered by my Malayali accent in the past. Even though hardly any of my friends teased me about the way I pronounced words in English, I was acutely aware of how an “Indian” accent sounded. I associated it with Apu from The Simpsons or the over-the-top cab driver character in movies. The most articulate people I saw on screen didn’t speak with my accent. Slowly my ears began to admire the way they pronounced words, and cringe whenever I heard a recording of myself.
It reached a point where in my journalism class I detested hearing my voice. Sure, everyone hates hearing their own voice, but I think my emotion was more conflicted than that. I heard my white, female classmate speak and wished she could narrate my podcast. I didn’t care about earning credit for the words I’d written, because I was convinced they’d be ruined if uttered in my voice.
Ironically, some of the people who’ve advised or teased me about my accent are fellow Indians. They’ve often given me well-meaning suggestions, tips on how to approach problematic letters in the alphabet.
And the people who’ve assured me about my accent have been White. This is not to say that White people, in general, embrace the Malayali accent, just that I’ve been surprised some consider my accent normal rather than something that needs to be improved.
Maybe it’s because they haven’t met enough Malayalis to have any preconceived ideas about us. And maybe some of it is because they’re actively trying to correct an issue that’s affected many black and brown people.
My professor actively encouraged all of us in class to be proud of our accents. She pointed out that a White Frenchman speaking with a thick French accent isn’t expected to shed it, so why should a Jamaican or Indian be asked to change the way they speak?
It was heartening to hear her say that. It reminded me that the world was changing, and people were actively trying to disassociate accents from impressions influenced by racism and colonialism.
But that’s not how I learned to accept my Malayali accent. It didn’t happen overnight, it wasn’t a moment of epiphany. An accent is like body-image, something you learn to embrace over time, through constant reminders and affirmations.
I started sending voice notes to my friends through WhatsApp, and it always surprised me when they replied saying how good it was to hear my voice. In those moments, I was able to confront the ridiculous idea that’d grown comfortable in my head: how could I think that these friends of mine were listening to my voice while shutting their eyes and cringing at my accent?
However, even now the insecurity can return. Whenever I meet a new person, especially if they are White, I make it a point to speak as clearly as possible. In fact, to be honest, I subconsciously do something much more embarrassing. I try to articulate myself as well as possible so that they may pick up on my fluency in the language and thus, disregard any notions that might have popped into their head when they heard my accent. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’m happy I’ve realised I do it.
So if you are bothered by how thick your Malayali accent is, I have both good and bad news for you. The bad news is there are sure to be people who’ll judge you because of the way you roll your R’s and stress your H’s. Their reactions, both real and perceived, will threaten to infect your mind, causing you to shrink away from opportunities that require you to rely on your voice.
Yes, your accent can lead to you losing your voice.
But here’s the good news. There are far more people out there who are ready to embrace you for who you are than you think possible. And their numbers are increasing with each passing year. There are Malayalis, Indians, and other brown people all around you who are actively breaking down barriers and making their way onto our screens and speakers. As they ascend to the top ranks of pop culture, criticism of your accent will fall.
Here’s the best news of all. You don’t need to wait for others. You can start today. By speaking. Freely and with passion. That’s the best way to accept your accent, and more importantly, accept who you are.
Having a thick Malayali accent hasn’t stopped Marwan Razzaq from writing a novel set in the U.S. The worst mass shooting in American history occurs, and the only suspect is a 30-something Malayali primary school teacher. Did he do it, or is he being frame? Find out by reading “The Man Who Found His Shadow”, a fast-paced crime thriller that’s available now on Amazon!