I found myself in a tube compartment today with a group of men who seemed to be having quite a riotous laugh. What did they find so funny? Well one of them was putting on a particularly heavy “Indian accent” for their amusement. I purposely put the words Indian accent in quotations mind you because, even though I have lived in India all my life (with the exception of the time spent since I moved to London in September 2012) and have met people from pretty much all over the country – Assam, Bihar, U.P, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Goa, Delhi, Kashmir, Karnataka – I have never heard this accent. You know the one I mean – the “comical” one that your English friends put on while bopping their heads – the Peter Sellers “Bombay” accent from The Party – or for those of you unacquainted with classic comedy, Russell Peters’ rip on Indians. Anyway, when I heard it I instinctively angled my head to get a look at the speaker, to see if he was Indian – as if, in my brain, if he was, then it was ok.
This raised an interesting question in my mind. Do people inherit a right to make certain jokes or use certain words or phrases by sheer virtue of their family tree? Take Russell Peters for example, he’s not Indian. He’s Canadian. But he looks Indian, so he’s made a great career off making fun of Indians – calling us cheap, hairy and obsessed with dancing in fields. But it’s for a laugh. He’s not racist (to be fair he doles out plenty of punishment on the Chinese, Jamaicans and Americans). Many, if not most, Black rappers and comedians use a certain N word freely and loosely, but damned if a Caucasian person ever use that word! In fact it ended the entire career of Michael Richards (TV’s beloved Kramer). I’ve even had friends who are NRIs or descendants of Indians put on the accent and say they can because “they’re Indian” – and I’m like, “No you’re not! You’re English! You just look Indian!” So does that mean, I can do the accent if I feel like it? Does the fact that I actually grew up in India and identify myself as an Indian make it okay for me to make fun of Indians?
Now I’ll admit that I actually enjoy putting on/experimenting with accents. I might even take the piss with an English or American or Irish friend by attempting (and rarely, succeeding) to talk to them in their own accent. But of course I’ll do this for a laugh with good friends. And if they mimicked my accent (which they don’t – they of course do the stereotypical Peter Sellers) I’m okay with that. We’re all just having a bit of fun.
But that’s not how I felt about the encounter that sparked this little meandering thought. For two reasons. First, the person putting on the accent wasn’t actually Indian. He was quite obviously English, possibly of Arab descent. Now this isn’t particularly something that I would be so peeved about, but the second reason was. He was speaking in broken, grammatically incorrect English, saying things like “You want drink? What you want? Coke (pronouncing it Cock). Water (pronounced Vaa-ter)”. Now this I didn’t appreciate. He was obviously making fun of someone who worked at a food outlet and was taking shots at his unfamiliarity with the language. Maybe that person wasn’t born here. Maybe he’s trying his hardest to acclimate and learn. It’s one thing to have fun and just use the accent, but he was making fun of a real person, to the hilarity of his four White friends. Why does it matter that they’re White? I don’t know. But I’m agitated and it just sort of does. I apologize if this offends you.
I’ve already admitted that I indulge in stereotypes myself sometimes. Ask my friends and they will tell you that I’m rather blunt and open and not a particular fan or abider of Political Correctness. “Plainspoken” I believe is the polite way of putting it. But I’m always mindful that my humor is not at the expense of someone else. Well, unless that someone else is a friend who has made the mistake of becoming close to me, then its fair game ; p
So does this make me a hypocrite? Quite possibly. Will this experience make me change my ways? Quite unlikely. I say, have a sense of humor about yourself. I try my best to. But don’t let a joke hide something more sinister. Humor is supposed to be a vehicle of fun and love and good feeling and sunshine and rainbows. Don’t be a tool and be nasty.
I will leave you now with a joke, to try to take the sting out of this whole post and bid farewell with some mirth:
Did you hear about the lawyer whose client was arrested for prostitution?
He got her off and she repaid the favor!