How to talk with an Indian accent

Having spent many years in the US, I have often been told that I speak “without an accent.” Of course it is impossible to speak without any accent.  For example, broadly we can say that some people have American, British, or Indian accents which can be further divided into regional accents like Bostonian, Cockney, or received Benglish. If you talk like an Oxford hack, an editor at the Economist might say that you have no accent, because it wouldn’t be noticeable to him or her.

Sacha Baron Cohen. His name-a-Borat. Naaat

What does it mean to be told that you don’t have an accent? It is a polite way of saying that you weren’t wearing the tee-shirt with “I am proud to be an Indian” in huge block letters printed over an elephant that day. And your new acquaintance made an honest mistake of not being able to figure out both your ethnicity and nationality in under 10 milliseconds.

But there is also a bit of suspicion that you notice in his or her eyes. Is that really the way you talk or do you have an amorphous call-center accent that changes with each client? In other words, are you sincere or are you faking it?

There is nothing worse than having an insincere accent. You turn into a caricature if you try to ape Paul Hogan’s Australian “G’day mate” from Crocodile Dundee or Leonardo DiCaprio’s South African Archer spelled “ay ah- see-aich-e-ah” from Blood Diamond. Foster’s may be Oztrayl-yun for beyah, but you’ll be in the middle of a diplomatic crisis if you try to say it with a straight face  in Melbourne these days.

Some can actually make fake accents cool. I don’t blame you if wish you had Prince Julian’s suave Indian accent as he crooned “I like to move it, move it” in Madagascar. But that was Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen can be anyone he wants to be. You are not Cohen.

You don’t even sound like Hank Azaria or Tom Kenny with their genuwine desi accents for Apu on The Simpsons and Asok on Dilbert.

Sip on your water (“normal” please, no ice). At least you are Indian. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have the added burden of explaining that they only look Indian.

Breathe. Relax.  “I watched a lot of Hollywood movies,” or “English is like a native language for me,” you say apologetically. For the next few seconds there is  cold silence as your acquaintance tries to figure out if you are lying. Then, the waiter arrives with the tuna tartare and the silence is broken. You’re not in the spotlight anymore and balance is restored to the setting.

Keep your chin up. If you’ve ever felt left out because of having an accent (or not having a particular one), you’ll like the story I am about to tell you. This happened to a friend, who I know did not make it up because he is a gentleman beyond reproach, and the story is too ridiculous for fiction. Dave, I have to share the story, but if you write a memoir, I’m sure many readers of this piece will buy it.

Many years ago, this friend of mine arrived in the middle of Iowa straight out of the UK. One day he is at a bar making conversation with some new friends. There is a lively conversation going on. In the middle of the conversation, a girl blurts out that my friend “has an accent.”

“So where are you from?” she asks in a clueless drone.
“I’m from England,” he replies, a bit taken aback.
“Oh, okay… What do they speak over in England… (pause) German?”



Creative Commons license for image of SBC: / CC BY 2.0

© 2010-2012, Anirban

How to write an application letter in Indian English

Pappu Patligali, our perennial hero, recently moved to India after spending years abroad working on various IT projects. Pappu studied in English-medium schools before completing his engineering degree from a state engineering college in Karnataka. In school, Pappu enjoyed reading novels written by Enid Blyton, but was not thrilled with studying English. He didn’t know why his teachers insisted that he study grammar from Wren & Martin, a book originally written for children of British officers in 1935 (during the reign of King George V) .

Pappu wrote in a very ornate style before moving abroad for higher studies. He soon learned how to write letters and emails in a more direct manner.

So, upon his return to India, he applied to join the local Housing Cooperative with the following letter:

Dear Sir/Madam:

My name is Pappu Patligali. I’ve recently moved into the neighborhood and I’d really like to join your Society as a full-time member. I’ve enclosed a completed application form along with all required fees. I’d really appreciate your help in expediting the process.

Please feel free to contact me if you need any further information. I look forward to meeting you in person!

Thanks in advance,


Pappu Patligali

On submitting the letter, Pappu was told brusquely that he didn’t know how to write in English and that he needed to resubmit in triplicate with full particulars per the approved sample proforma letter. Of course, there was no use telling the Society’s members that the National Council of Educational Research and Training now publishes a textbook recommending that letters be written in a modern style.  Pappu just ended up showing his NRI ignorance.

Ultimately, Pappu followed the prescribed proforma and sent the following letter in triplicate:

Respected Sir:

Respectfully, I beg to state that I am Pappu Patligali, son of Sri Jhappu Patligali currently domiciled in Nayaghat within PS- Kotwali in District Uttar Dinajpur under the jurisdiction of your esteemed Society.  My permanent address is Village Rampur, of aforementioned District and police jurisdiction. It is hereby requested forthwith that I may please be enrolled as a Member of your Society under the provisions of Bye-laws and State Act of 1962 the Rules framed thereover and thereunder.

Therefore, I seek to humbly request herewith to deposit the prescribed amount as payment in cash the membership fee and the entrance fee today for which kindly money receipt from branch-office near Hanuman Mandir may please be issued on paper in my favour. Further, I am to forthwith state that I shall endeavour to solemnly and most faithfully abide by the rules and Bye-laws of the Society as Member of the Society with my firstborn forfeit and under pain of death (as per provisions articulated in Byelaw No. 221 Part C dated Jan 20, 1962).  Moreover, sir, it is my heartiest and most humble entreaty to you to kindly and most generously look into the matter and do the most needful at your earliest convenience.

I remain, yours obediently,

Full signature of Pappu Patligali

Place :

Date :-

(s/d attestation of first-class gazetted officer)

Needless to say Pappu’s letter is currently in a file under a stack of similar letters awaiting review by the Secretary of the Society.

Footnote: Although I’ve written both letters specifically for this post, I’ve been heavily influenced in the second letter by actual examples on the internet including this one.  If you have time, take a look at question 17 of the 2009 UPSC General Ability Test which asks test-takers to look at the following sentence: “Respectfully I beg to state that I am suffering from fever for the past fortnight.”

Read about Pappu’s next misadventure here.

© 2010-2012, Anirban