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From "White" Accents to Palak Puri

"I discover it is not DOR-it-OES, it is duh-REE-toes"


At twelve, I open the chapter on Ancient Egypt in my Humanities textbook and practice shaping my lips and moving my tongue to read it out in what I think is a White accent. I have no idea that the Australian accent does not sound anything like the American voices I have heard on TV, but still, I try to mimic the smooth drawl. At twelve, even an uncomfortable performance of whiteness feels safer to me than any stylistic slip revealing my roots.

 

‘The Ancient Egyptians did not consider the brain to be important, and used a hook to remove it through the nose, before throwing it away’. I roll my ‘r’s, I soften my ‘d’s and ‘t’s. This is preparation for my introduction to my new seventh-grade class in Melbourne. All through my first week, my forehead feels naked without my bindi, and my mouth is tired of being forced to bend and enunciate in unnatural ways. I live in constant vigilance and fear of pronouncing something wrong. I discover it is not DOR-it-OES, it is duh-REE-toes.


I try pretending it’s all a nightmare. To do this, I close my eyes really hard and imagine what it would be like to wake up back home in Ernakulam, relief flooding my chest. A few weeks in, I make friends and it gets easier to breathe. A year later, Deevi and I sit in the oval after school, knees touching, making daisy chains. She tells me about the lanes near her home in Malaysia which she’d ride her bikes in with her cousins, how her favourite food is still rice with butter and fish. I tell her about the mango tree outside my house and how Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam is my favourite movie. 

She tells me that as a three-year-old, all she would listen to in the car was the soundtrack of Devdas. I tell her that I danced to Maar Daala for my auntie’s sangeet, looking up with melancholy eyes in my green Ghaghra-choli, a four-year-old with a buzzcut, trying to be Chandramukhi. Eight years later we watch Devdas again in my house, and we both agree that the titular character, played by Shah Rukh Khan is an absolute dick. We have no idea what either Paro or Chandramukhi see in this abusive, alcoholic maniac. We decide that the movie would be far better if they had been each other's lovers and Devdas had been left out entirely.

 

 

At thirteen I hated being seen in traditional clothes, I’d refuse to go into what I thought were ‘white spaces’ with any ethnic clothes on. I would abruptly stop speaking in Konkani and hush anyone around me too, insisting that they speak softly or speak in English. At nineteen I am wearing my sequined salwar in the supermarket, yelling out in Konkani. My chest feels light, free, I am completely rooted in my being, I run, smiling so wide my cheeks hurt, to put the mochi in the basket.

 

I marvel at the ease which seems to have crept up on me over the years, the feeling that I have two homes, not one. I laugh when I see turmeric lattes in cafes. Haldi dhoodh is in fashion! Masala Maggi is on the shelves in Woolworths, and hear that Ghee, an EXOTIC INDIAN BUTTER, is being raved about. I see Deepika Padukone on Ellen, and my chest swells with pride when she talks in her lilting desi accent, a radiant goddess. In uni, I find a Konkani friend in my journalism class, who brings Ragi Paisu in a thermos, and suddenly the world is a better place for it.

 

At twenty-first, Jess and I watch a YouTube compilation of VB ads and then I show her the Washing Powder Nirma ad. Hema! Rekha! Jaya aur Sushma! Sab ki pasand Nirmaaaaa! This is Jess’s favourite thing for the next month. I bond over the love of Lata Mangeshkar with Imaan, who falls in love and gets her heartbroken on a weekly basis, and pines to Lag Ja Gale. My music is an almost equal split between Hozier, Mitski, and Sufjan Stevens, and Papon, Prateek Kuhad, and Rekha Bhardwaj.

 

A year ago, I cleaned out my old textbooks and packed them into a red bag to donate. Year 7 Humanities jumps out at me again. This time I read about how Anubis and Thoth oversee the weighing of the dead person’s heart on scales against a feather. For us, the children of diaspora, identity can start to melt away, feeling lost every time we are asked “where are you from?” a question that many of us take years to resolve within ourselves. It is as if one day as we slept, an invisible hand reached out inside us, rearranging things within us imperceptibly. When we wake up, we are confused, tangled, uncomfortable, ethnicity one way, nationality the other, aching to belong to something in a whole and perfect way which seems to constantly elude us. 

The onus falls onto us, to understand that the unconditional and consummate acceptance we crave is something only we can give to ourselves. No single place hands it to us, no document, no title. We create it by building communities that help us to thrive with tenderness and support, accepting that sometimes we think and speak in mismatched languages, removing the expectations of a singular and limited identity. We carve it out by embracing our confusion as flexibility and expansion, rooting our sense of home in ourselves,  so that it follows us, wherever we go.  I want to go back, reassure my twelve-year-old self that Amemet will not devour her heavy heart.

 

It will get lighter and lighter, and you will let yourself free your tongue to move as it likes, wear payal during summer, and bring back palak puri for lunch, all while going through a Please-Knock-Mrs-Harry-Styles’s-Room phase. It’ll be light as a feather one day.

 

Main artwork produced by South Asian Today's designer, Sahana Arun, @thegigglypufff

 

About the author

Shivani is a Melbourne-based writer and uni student. When she isn’t feeling like she is only an adult human person the way maple-flavoured syrup is maple syrup (a sort of imposter syndrome for existing), she writes things and then immediately hates them. Instagram: @shivanisprabhu

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