...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.


Anonymous Priyanka said...

വള്ളത്തോള്‍ പാടിയ പോലെ "മറ്റുള്ള ഭാഷകള്‍ കേവലം ധാത്രിമാര്‍ മര്‍ത്യന് തന്‍ ഭാഷ പെറ്റമ്മ താന്‍ "
Now I have one more reason to love your posts. May be after some years you could surprise us with a Malayalam post :)

12:40 pm  
Blogger Ghadeer said...

"Then you are illiterate. Someone who doesn't know their own mothertongue, is illiterate." True... Like you said, there's a lot more to a culture than just knowing the language, but losing the language is losing a big chunk of the culture.

12:38 am  
Blogger Sandhya Menon said...

Priyanka, thank you for that faith in me. I would one day love to write in Malayalam.

Ghadeer, you are so right. You lose so much when you lose your language.

4:39 pm  
Blogger Jane said...

I love this! All the best to you! Hope you're able to master reading the script some time too.

8:58 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

A lovely article to say coz it takes guts to speak your real conscience. In this intensely globalized world when we Indians are getting more westernized in our daily lives, our dress, way of thought etc. the only way indeed which can keep ourselves bonded to our subtle roots is our mothertongue. Glad to see at least a mother has accepted n expressed this dilemma many others face it, realize it but are unable to accept it unfortunatey. It is this mental slavery of our colonial legacy that prevents us from rediscovering our lost glory. More or less Malayalis ought to take every bit of pride in their mothertongue since even after centuries it has not lost its purity. One of the languages closest to Sanskrit. Hearing Malayalam songs one feels the subtle joy of something of Sanskrit slokas. More or less 90% of Malayalam vocabulary borrows from Sanskrit same as Bengali.

2:16 pm  
Blogger Kidu said...

Lovely article:

4:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firstly, let me just say that I enjoyed reading your blog post.

It highlighted an issue that is increasingly relevant as the world gets smaller - that of language and one's cultural identity.

I too plan to write on this very topic and I can already tell you that you will find the similarities striking to say the least.
I found the incident in the park highlighting a need to remain culture neutral in certain situations to be something that can be explored a lot more.
The incident in the dance class was also touching as it showed a glimpse into the chauvinistic social niceties of our culture and the unwritten rules of engagement therein.

With all due respect, regarding the part where you take off "...I don't find this kind alienation and rejection among many other people of other languages." I must disagree here.
It is seen in any culture that thinks it is 'holier than thou' and trust me there is no dearth of that on this planet; be it the Japanese or the Arab or our very own achayan from God's own country,
the looking down on half breeds who can't/don't/won't identify with the culture that they hold in veneration has a universality that probably arose from the cave man times!!
It is just that to recognize it you have to understand the culture and pick up on subtle differences that may not be so easy for an outsider.

Personally I find it fascinating to explore the reasons for not learning one's mother tongue.
It could be that one never got the opportunity to immerse oneself in the language,
it could be that one's parents never thought it was important
or that they were ashamed of the association
or on a deeper level it could be that one just hated the culture and by proxy the language!!

Either way it was an intriguing post. Well done. :)

10:50 pm  
Blogger luvpriya said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences. Growing up Malayalee in the US, I too was on the receiving end of lectures about how my lack of Malayalam was something I should take shame in. I let go of the hurt and anger I felt then from the judgment but still feel a deep longing for learning the language it self.

5:51 am  

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