...and then

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Reclaiming Malayalam

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.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Matters of the heart

(Who knew losing my hearing would give me inspiration? If you go further than this, let me know what you think).

"I love you forever. Will you?" He asks.
She thinks a bit and says, "it's quiet out here. Where' s the milieu?"

"Oh you wanted a busier place? You should have just said."
"Alright, she says, let's go to this place you mentioned up ahead. "

Walking, he asks, "But I thought you'd like to do this somewhere private."
She is looking around as she says, "Sure, I am adventurous. I'd certainly like to try it."

"So shall we head back then, to where we were sitting?
Important moments need quiet, not a soul around, not even a thing."

"Eh, What's that you said? All you want is a fling?
Well I'm not that kind of girl, no matter what you think."

"What in the world are you on about," he says
And he stops suddenly and grabs her face.

"You haven't heard a thing I said, my dear
For gods sake put in that thing in your ear. "

"Oops, sorry," she says as she fiddles in her bag for her hearing aid
"Silly me. I was wondering why the cloud in my ear stayed.

"And before I put it on, i will have you know
This is exactly why I love you and will do forever more

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Wishing well

Mira heard the laughter of her little girl and smiled to herself. She had to remind herself that that laughter wasn't going to be tinkling for long. God knows it had already changed from a delighted baby chuckle to a little-girl laugh within two years. Where had those few years gone, she wondered, as she tried to read the book she wanted to finish. Tough breast-feeding days had given way to watching her daughter cutting her first teeth in the upper jaw, being excited at her first steps, going back to work leaving her heart behind in the pudgy hands of her daughter. And now, a smart little whip of four, Mia would talk 19 to a dozen (whatever that meant) and ask a million whys in one day. She had learnt tantrum throwing, right after she had learnt how to wrap her mother around her little finger.

On her first birthday, Mia was all black curls and drooly smiles. It was as if she had decided, because she was one, that  she was going to walk all day long. And boy, did she walk! Mira still thought about it with a huge silly grin. That day was perhaps the first time she had realised she was beginning to think more of babies than she used to. Babies were the epitome of a cliche. They all had an innocence that appealed, they were always cute once they got past the ugly new-born stage; for heaven's sake they were even cute when they were annoying. If you wanted to turn perfectly reasonable adults into fools, hand them a baby, Mira always said. One way or another it would work -- they'd either coo and baby-talk like complete idiots or be totally clueless on what they must do. Either way, fool. But the worst part about this living, breathing, time-and-energy-and-money consuming cliche? It was this: Almost always, most people wanted to have them, no matter what. It was this side she had decided to bury and disown when she had fallen in love with Mia.

It was also the first time she remembered wishing this child wouldn't grow up. That Mira would always have her arms full of this cherub, placed perfectly on one cocked hip, that she'd always have the pleasure of holding her and soothing any tantrums, pain or disappointment. It was the first time Mira wanted Mia to always remain this adorable, brilliant baby whose eyes held no awareness but that of pure wonder and joy.

She put the book down and sighed. Three years later, that tender, amazing cluelessness had disappeared from Mia's eyes to be replaced by an onyx-in-the-sunlight glint of mischief that Mira now wished would never go away. She wished her hip-long pigtails would grow no longer, her perfect, perfect milk-teeth would never fall out and that she'd forever believe in monsters and guardian angels alike. She wished, as she often had in the past years, that Mia wouldn't grow up. Because if Mira couldn't have the pudgy, drooly Mia to always fill her hands in times of joy and sadness, to bite into gently when she felt an onrush of love, then this would have to do. This four-year old who was discovering puns and lying, who was learning to deal with bullies and heartbreak at being left out of play. This four-year old who thought Mira was the centre of her universe.

Unlike most mothers, Mira dwelt in the now. And perhaps a little in the past. When mothers couldn't wait to know what their babies' first word would be, Mira was content with a cooing Mia without ever considering the possibility that Mia would eventually start talking when she was old enough. When parents planned school fees and college funds, Mira looked at two-year-old Mia and saw nothing  but a two-year old. Mira didn't think she could handle her daughter struggling with trigonometry and organic chemistry, or unkindness of other girls, or worse, being bad at sport or art. She had no idea what would she say that would be the right thing for her confidence and yet let her know that her mother sympathised with her. She preferred prefer her Mia the way she was, four years old and completely incorrigible.

Mira gave up her attempts at reading. Her mind wasn't in it because all she had thought for the past few minutes was Mia. She wandered away to look for her; she felt the familiar rush in her heart. And that kind of surge she had never been able to hold. She had to kiss those tender cheeks, or squeeze that unwilling little body into a hug and only then would the swell in her heart subside. She walked past her husband who looked up at her a little concerned, gently removing his reading glasses as she walked on. She walked past the main door that was ajar to let the evening breeze in. She looked out at the little front yard and called, "Mia, Mia". No answer. She turned back a little to tell her husband that she couldn't find Mia but he'd think her silly for being alarmed so quickly. She changed her shoes and walked to the playground where she was sure she'd find Mia playing either on the swings or getting mucky in the sand. She turned back to look once at her house, just to be sure Mia wasn't there. Then she walked on, planning a conversation in her mind, as she had always done on her walks with Mia. This was Mira's little game. Every walk she took with Mia had to have a challenging, interesting conversation. If she could keep Mia's attention for four minutes, if she could actually maintain a conversation on the subject, then she'd have won that day. Some days, Mia flitted off after some glittering thing on the road or asked her own questions about some completely unconnected thing. Those days, Mira found new worlds, new ways to answer old questions. On the days she managed to keep Mia's attention, Mira would feel mostly happy, but also a little bit guilty, wondering if she had forced a topic. Guilt is like a wedding ring you wear, if you marry for ever. It lives with you and you never see it. Till it's gone or till it gets better or worse. And then it leaves it's mark on you. By then, it's too late. Except you can always take off a wedding ring; guilt, not so much.

The clouds parted and revealed a blushing, setting sun that promised to turn the day's insipid sky to a slightly more interesting pink, a dash of orange maybe. Not a spectacular sunset but a dramatic one all the same. Mira walked on slowly in her quest for Mia, worrying about how long it was going to take to bathe her and get dinner done before bedtime; she hated delayed bedtimes. The playground was bereft of children; they had all gone home or not come out to play at all because there wasn't the telltale lazy echo of the swing, and the sand in the pit seemed undisturbed after last night's rain. Where could they be, Mira wondered. Realising it was a Sunday evening and that most children would be spending time with their familes, she shook her head and smiled, starting back home. I wonder what I should do about my absent-mindedness, Mira thought as she walked back, smiling distantly at the few quiet neighbours who were out for a walk.

"Neel, I can't find Mira in the playground. In fact, I don't think anyone's been there. Should I panic now," she asked her husband -- only half seriously -- who, strangely enough she thought, was still waiting at the door where she had last seen him when she left home. "Mira..." Neel started but never got to complete what he started. "I know, I know," said Mira, smiling at his concern. "I am not panicking just yet, so save the talk," Mira said as she headed inside to check the bedrooms for Mia. The urge to see Mia's perfection was suddenly overpowering; all she wanted was to grab her little girl and tell her in her limited way, in her limited language of kisses and words just how much she loved her.

Upstairs, her own bedroom showed no sign of Mia having been there; everything was in its place, intact. Mira smiled again. Another day saved from Storm Mia. She moved to the study, not a book or pen or chair out of place. Last was Mia's bedroom. "Mia, baby, aren't you hungry? I want you down at the table right now," Mira said aloud, manufacturing sternness.  But Mia's room, too, was untouched. She opened the cupboards; clothes for a four-year old. Tee shirts folded, jeans and shorts too. Little, gloriously girly dresses of every colour (except brown, because maaa I hate brown) hung on candy-coloured kids' hangers. Shoes were in a perfect row at the bottom of the cupboard; hair clips, barrettes, hairbands, all strung on a colourful holder. Not a thing out of place. Except Mia.

Suddenly confused, Mira sat down on the bed. She couldn't tell if Mia was a one-year old or if Mia had grown up. And were they really Mia's clothes? Such big ones? And where was she? Was she old enough to wander away on her own? Heck was she old enough to sleep in her own bed, without the sides that would keep her from falling? "Neel," she called and found him standing at the door way to her room. "Neel, is Mia one or four," she asked. All Neel did was gently place his arms around her unresisting shoulders, raise and lead her away from the room. He had lost count of the times he had told Mira, while grief, rage and regret massacred his heart, that she had finally got her wish a few years ago. That her Mia would always be four years old.