As far back as I can remember, I have spoken at least three languages. Most kids who don't grow up in their home state in India are like me. We speak our mother tongue, English, and the local language. If one lives in one's home state, two languages at least.
As my kids grow up and I see them adept at barely one language and floundering with another, I am taken back to my own childhood. We had kids around us who didn't speak English, even if we went to schools that taught in English. As a result of that you had to pick up the local language or Hindi at least. My kids have no such compulsions sadly.
I remember once long ago, when we moved to a city that didn't encourage mixing with the locals and their language being a foreign one. We were outside in a park, where many other Indians were hanging out as well. My mother happened to say something in Malayalam and my father shushed her gently because there were other malayalees about and he didn't want them to know we were malayalees too. In those times, it was rare for either of my parents to speak in Malayalam because we spoke a mix of languages at home and our Malayalam, my brother's and mine, was severely broken at best.
That memory, somehow, stayed with me and now I have no idea why. Maybe to germinate as this blogpost. Because, you see, most my life, I took pride in not "looking" or sounding like a malayalee. No thick accent, no curly hair, no bindi with dresses, no chandanam paste or the forehead with oily hair left partially open. Worst of all, no Malayalam. Around 15, I found a desire to learn the language and I moved back to India. Till then, every vacation was a skilled act of communication. We went to my parents' villages in Kerala where people came to visit with us. We'd say hello and never know how to go beyond that because there isn't a "how are you? Fine, thank you. How are you?" fixed politeness set in Malayalam. They'd ask us questions in fluent Malayalam in the dialect of the village we belonged to and both of us would be painfully uncommunicative as we had no idea how to respond in more than one word. And the relief that was felt when someone visiting us knew English was almost tangible. But there was a curious other feeling with it. One of surprise. We assumed, as children, people in Kerala didn't speak any English. And when someone did, it impressed the pants off us, especially if it was without an accent. An accent that we learnt to ridicule in a rather supercilious, sneering manner. (Today the accent is just as amusing but I embrace it with the love of cultural influences that I find in everything we do as Indians. A lawyer joe is a fantastic mispronunciation of lower jaw and I would never ever exchange that for cookie-cutter uniformity that more and more malayalees seem to be achieving these days.)
When I moved to Kerala for two years, when I was 15, I had the pricelessly enriching task or explaining Shakespeare and other English writers to hostel mates from Malappuram and Vayanad, from Kuruvalingad and Pathanamthitta. Girls who wrote fluent English but were lost when it came to speech and cognition. Try explaining English poetry in a language that you are ridiculously inept at and you'll know how educative it is for both involved. It gave my a thrust to my rising love and respect for my mothertongue. It is probably when I started owing it as we'll, when I began understanding that being a malayalee or knowing the language was nothing to be ashamed of, as I had believed most my life.
Till that day, an incident that occurred when I was about 14 used to enrage me. I was waiting for my mum to pick me up from dance class and it was late in the evening. No mobile phones then, so I used my dance teacher's phone to call home and as was our wont, I spoke to her in amid do Hindi and English. I hung up and turned only to find my dance teacher s husband, who had no business eavesdropping on the conversation, asking me why I spoke in Hindi. I didn't know what he was asking me, so I guess I must have given him an unsatisfactory reply. He pressed one, aren't you Malayalee, was that not your parent you were speaking to, then why were you speaking in Hindi. This explanatory question made more sense and I replied it was because I didn't know Malayalam and was more comfortable in Hindi. I will never forget what he said then. "Then you are illiterate. Someone who doesn't know their own mothertongue, is illiterate. Go check the meaning of the word." I was a teenager who was hurt and shamed easily in the company of adults. I think I gave him a bit of argument but you know how Indian kids are brought up right, even if they are illiterate? You never argue with an adult, especially someone not family, especially not in full view of other people. You just agree to be shamed and come away hoping you develop and thick skin.
For years, I debated with myself about his criticism. Was he right? Was he cloistered in his view? Should I care? Today I believe he was harsh in his judgment but he was right in awakening my conscience and helping me do something about it. It added to my desire to explore Malayalam.
Recently, someone whose views i respect, said that your mothertongue is where the roots of your culture, your "sanskriti" lie. Paths to your own roots open up when you embrace your language and see its beauty and purpose. I have seen it in my own experience. Just the many dialects and how they came to be, if one is scratching the surface, is fascinating and informative. It is also divisive, if you go into it with a parochial vision but more than anything else discovering a language, one that you heard even before you were born and one that has been handed down from generation to generation, a language that allows you roots and lets you belong is a gift. A mothertongue allows you to abandon it but it is in your blood. And one day, sooner or later, it's call rises and there's no turning back. You can either be guilty forever by ignoring it or then you can answer that call and discover yet another key to the quest of your roots. Which is what it did to me.
Even today, tons of friends who have grown up away from Kerala cheerfully say, I am from Kerala but I don't know Malayalam. But they know all the lovely songs, they watch the fabulous movies in secret, they cannot but help flaunt in front of their friends that they are mothertongue illiterate. One way or another, the abandoned mothertongue gets her own back at you. Like a new convert, when I started reclaiming Malayalam and my Malayali-ness, I used to be severely judgmental of those who were the person I was. But that was early in the piece. Now I feel empathy and pity that they'll never discover all that Malayalam has to offer. The incredible punning, the layered poetry, the sharp and mindblowingly intense literature. I still don't read Malayalam fluent enough to read its literature but I never pass up a translation or the opportunity to listen to someone read it aloud.
When I find the gnawing need for Malayalam in the deep maw of my conscience, I begin with popular culture - song lyrics - and move on to carefully chosen translations after which I can only marvel. If this is so astounding in English, my imagination isn't rich enough to conjure up the Malayalam.
The striking thing, however, is I don't find this kind alienation and rejection among many other people of other languages. The Hindi speaking use Hindi militantly, even looking on at non-Hindi speakers with astonishment. Tamilians are largely protective of their language as the odd obstinate, un-helpful auto driver you may speak to in Hindi will let you know. I haven't known many Kannadigas who disown their language, but that is my lack and the truth may very well be different. Punjabi, Bhojpuri and many dialects of Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati find wide and a gentle acceptance in popular culture. Before you shoot me down, I am aware these are sweeping generalisations but if I were to get specific, it wouldn't be any fun.
I am sure I am getting old but this has become something I felt like writing about when I see my kids may never have the opportunity to develop the skill it takes to converse in good Malayalam and well as colloquial Malayalam and gain enjoyment from it. They'll probably go through my own journey. What I hope I can inculcate in them is the desire to find their own path to many-skeined arms of their mothertongue.