There has been much amusement at the way Samsung’s Pranav Mistry spoke English on Wednesday night in Berlin, Germany. The 32-year-old was picked to release the Galaxy Gear smartwatch. This is a watch that connects to and displays the screen content of your mobile phone, which can stay in your pocket or bag.
The Gear is the first product innovation Samsung has put out before Apple. Mistry’s being picked for launching it globally tells us something about how he’s regarded within the company.
Mistry is from Palanpur in northern Gujarat, and to me his speech has the inflection of the western Gujarati, which is to say Kathiawari.
He probably speaks Gujarati like Gandhi, who was from the southern part of western Gujarat, and like Jinnah. Even many Gujaratis from central and southern Gujarat—Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat—would find Mistry’s Palanpuri accent amusing, though in Gujarati, of course.
The interesting thing about the town—it is hardly a city, with barely over 100,000 people—of Palanpur is that it is man for man the most productive, most brilliant city in South Asia.
When I visited the diamond bourse in Tel Aviv, Israel, I was not surprised to observe that it was totally dominated by two communities. The Polish and other Eastern European Hasidics with their black coats, black hats and ringlets, and Palanpuri Jains with the singsong accent of Mistry.
And so, Jews and Gujjus.
Palanpuris control half the market in the world’s unpolished diamonds, and they have no equal, even among Marwaris.
It is usually in the field of business and enterprise that the Palanpuri shines and so it is unusual that young Mistry picked academia (he is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US) as his calling, then moving to a corporate job.
At another event, whose video is available on YouTube, he talks about fantasy and innovation. Mistry says his inspiration isn’t from science fiction, as is the case with many of the other technology masters around him. It is Hindu mythology that is the root and source of his creativity.
He finds ideas in the texts and in their stories. This shows him to be grounded in his culture, which is something the English-medium Indian usually discards, even though he makes the pretence of worshipping it.
In my opinion, this rootedness is far more important intellectually for Indians than knowledge of Western popular culture, which passes for sophistication in our country.
What amused Twitter was not the content of Mistry’s talk. It was the way he delivered it.
An Indian speaking like a native before foreigners embarrasses us because the accent betrays a lack of sophistication that stigmatizes all Indians.
This, of course, says more about us than about the person speaking.
Americans and Europeans don’t care about this and give no thought to it. They are accustomed to English coming at them in all shades. Of course, there are exceptions. Last week, seed fund firm Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham was criticized after he told Inc. magazine that having a “strong foreign accent” could be detrimental to a start-up founder’s success.
The tech blog Daring Fireball, the only one I follow, had no reference to Mistry at all. What Americans are interested in is the message.
Mistry is smart enough to make it to the world’s technology elite.
And honest and confident enough not to change the way he pronounces words from the way he learnt them in his Palanpur school.
The rapid expansion of India’s middle class means that Convent schools have long ago stopped being the primary dispensers of English education.
It is the awkward, native English speaker who is now the teacher, and whose wards are the majority of India’s high school graduates.
We should get used to more Indians embarrassing us in this fashion.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns