Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Why can’t we, just be we?

I faced a service outage this morning and called the customer support contact for help. The support person who answered, pleasantly greeted and gave his name. It was an unmistakable Indian name but his accent was anything but Indian. I explained the problem and gave him my consumer identification number. He pulled my information and spelt my full name for confirmation. There was no hesitation and it was without a glitch. This was the first time I had heard a non-Indian spell my first name correctly. I immediately doubted if he really was a non-Indian. Our conversation went on, and all through I could hear faint voices of people in the background and every now and then I could hear people speaking in I think Telugu. I was pretty much convinced that the call had been routed to a call center in India but his accent still kept me guessing. I was especially surprised with a sentence he said almost at the end of the call, still clueless of the solution to the issue I was facing – “I don’t know nothing of this problem”. A sentence constructed with 2 negatives is something I have heard only in the US. It might be his company policy to put that accent, but he won it hands down. If not for his name and importantly the background conversations, I would have not even thought he might be an Indian.

My afterthoughts reminded me of an incident which happened some weeks back. I was in Chennai and had called for a cab to drop me at the airport to catch my early morning flight to Bangalore. I had asked the security to direct the cab to the rear gate of the building which was closer to my room. As I approached, the driver got down the cab and offered to put my bag in the boot. He said something in Tamil for which I replied in Hindi expressing my ignorance of Tamil. He immediately said “No problems sir. I main gate only standing; watch man telling stand here”. I nodded but could not hide my smile. Once we were in the car, he asked “Mumbai or Delhi flight sir” for which I replied “Bangalore”. After a few minutes of silence, he asked me something in Tamil mixed English. I could not decipher but thought he was asking me if it was my first visit to Chennai. I replied in Hindi saying I had been in Chennai before. Not sure if he understood; he immediately put his next question – “Chennai negative Bangalore negative?” which scared the daylights out of me. I was somewhere in Chennai with no knowledge of Tamil and was posed this question. Unsure of how to react, I responded in a way to make it look like I did not understand his question all the while thinking of what to answer. He put the same question again - “Chennai negative Bangalore negative?” I then assumed a meaning and replied “Bangalore native”, for which he said “ok”. I think he just wanted to know which my native place is. Whatever was his question, my remaining journey went fine. He voluntarily started explaining me our route to the airport. Whenever we approached any building he would explain its importance. He took great pride in explaining the things around and how good Chennai is, but all his explanation was in English and not in Hindi. I asked him a few questions purposely in Hindi, using long sentences at times. In spite of my repeated tries, he struck to his English and did not utter a single word in Hindi.

I reached the Bangalore airport and called a cab to drop me home. It was a different situation with the cab driver in Bangalore. He started the conversation in English and I responded in Kannada. For quite some time he stuck to English while I would purposely respond in Kannada. This went on for a while until he finally gave up and started responding in Kannada.

I was thinking – “Why can’t we, just be we?” In the name of employer and customer satisfaction we adapt to things so quickly which are unnatural to us and also stick to them. I have come across many, who, not sure have adapted or just show off, but seem to genuinely take pains to look and speak different or maybe act as a non-Indian. We seem to be fascinated with all other things except our own. I don’t mean to disrespect other languages or cultures but let’s not ignore our own in the process. I think we should learn about other cultures and languages and importantly we should also learn to respect our own. I remember somebody telling me, in India from more than 1600 spoken languages in 1960s, the count reduced to less than 1000 by 1990s. I sincerely hope the count is not reduced to 2 digits by the time my daughter, who is 7 months old now, joins college.

~Narendra V Joshi


Swaroop said...

I too have thought about this a lot. But one logical solution is that speaking in English gives them a chance for them to improve the language even though he is not comfortable with it. He talks in his own language through out the day and he never gets an opportunity to speak in English. He could communicate better when he keeps trying to speak in English than getting back to his comfortable language .Like I said, this might be one of the reasons but a pretty good one.

Rahul said...

I would agree, but not fully. Yes, faking accent should be frowned upon. But when it helps someone earn his bread and butter, I don't see any harm. I don't want to comment on chennai and bangalore as I am an outsider to both. But I must say it's really impressive when a taxi driver attempts to speak in english. I would like to assume and presume that he's only doing it because one, he wants to learn a language that's considered a must have for educated class and two, it can only be good for his family and children.

Prasanna said...


ಸಕತ್ತಾಗಿದೆ, ತುಂಬ ಮಜಾ ಅನಿಸ್ತು ಓದುವುದಕ್ಕೆ!