Donald Trump using Modi’s accent brings to the fore the Indian accent, which has been the object of caricature and ridicule for long.
We are not even a month into the new year and already it’s going off the rails. Who would have thought that tucked into the middle of an article about troop increases in Afghanistan in The Washington Post one would come across this nugget?
Senior administration officials said that the president has been known to affect an Indian accent and imitate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in an Oval Office meeting last year told him, “Never has a country given so much away for so little in return” as the United States in Afghanistan.
Once the scandal was about American presidents misleading the world into war in Iraq. Now we are in a tizzy about accents.
At a time when other countries are allegedly being cavalierly thrown into the “shithole” by Donald Trump, it’s easy to take umbrage. US Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi has issued a statement saying he was “appalled”. He said that “behaviour that belittles our allies and ‘otherizes’ entire communities of Americans is one of the last things we need.”
But what if Trump was actually not dissing Modi, but using him to bolster his argument ? Don’t forget that Trump wooed the Indian community by borrowing his Ab ki baar Modi sarkar and mangling it into Ab ki baar Trump sarkar. He calls himself a “big fan of India”, and has anointed Modi a “great man”. He even sent his daughter-in-law to a Hindu temple for Diwali. Those who bristle with anger at Trump mocking Modi, should pause and wonder if, in this case, imitation (even a poor one) is the sincerest form of flattery?
The problem is not the accent. An accent is, just an accent. There’s nothing good or bad about one per se. The problem is always the baggage that comes with it. If Trump had tried to do a Gallic accent, Macron would shrug, and roll his eyes. And the French would probably not care. A French accent for much of the world is about gourmet food, wine, lovers and art.
An Indian accent, on the other hand, means call centres and curry stains, overpopulation and outsourcing in the American imagination. The accent is the object of caricature and ridicule. Apu on The Simpsons is an affectionate character, but he is still the butt of jokes, the permanently fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, never quite American. It is the brand of the other. Trump knows that. This is not the first time he has tried to do “Indian”. On the campaign trail, at a rally in Delaware, he did his best call centre impersonation.
Guess what, you’re talking to a person from India. How the hell does that work? … So I called up, under the guise of checking on my card, I said, ‘Where are you from?’” “We are from India. Thank you very much. That’s all I need to know.
Then he quickly qualified his statement to say, “India is a great place”. He was just taking issue with those outsourcing jobs to India. At that time the Hillary Clinton campaign tut-tutted that it was “typical of the disrespect he has shown to groups across the spectrum”, even as it launched Indian-Americans for Hillary. But the larger issue, was that the accent became the code for a narrative about “stealing” American jobs.
In a way our touchiness about the accent betrays our own insecurity. Indian Americans like to think of themselves as the model minority, winning spelling bees instead of running penny-pinching Patel motels. The new India likes to think of itself as the superpower in waiting, a country coming into its own, deserving of a seat in the UN Security Council, winning respect everywhere for its ancient civilisation and modern progress. The accent remains our Achilles heel, a reminder that try as we might, we cannot get the respect we feel we deserve.
In the case of Modi, it stings even more. Modi came to power felling the Lutyens elite, and their Macaulayputras with their St. Stephens’ accents. Modi made it OK to feel unembarrassed about not having a spiffy English accent, and GRE-topping vocabulary. And Modi promised that despite it, he could make India a world player. His foreign travels have been touted as his way of doing exactly that.
When he finally consented to an interview on Indian television, before heading off to Davos, Modi was asked: “Between when you became prime minister in 2014, and now in 2018, do you see some difference in India’s status when you go to international summits?” We watched his bear hugs with world leaders and understood the larger message of that was being sent out for our wide-eyed consumption. Or as the Zee News anchor said admiringly in that interview: “Take Netanyahu, the friendship between you was like we were watching a film in which two friends have a pukka friendship.”
When the US President puts on an Indian accent, we worry that behind closed doors they are laughing at our delusions of grandeur. But we should relax. All is not lost.
Modi’s supporters could claim that Trump’s latest Indian accent merely shows that he is such a bhakt himself, that in private he is even imitating the way he speaks. Of course, a Modi coat would have been a better form of flattery than a Modi accent.
But in a time of “shitholes”, this could be dressed up as an example of a triumph of Indian soft power—the American President putting on his best Indian accent to curry favour.
Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author.