Like most of us, I do not remember the first words I spoke. My parents don’t remember it very well either. My mother, on one occasion told me that it was ‘fahh’ for fan. On another, she mentioned it was ‘uggug’ for egg. Knowing how much I loved eggs when I was younger, I am not surprised my first words weren’t ‘amma’ or ‘acha’, the words for mother and father in Malayalam. But then, we don’t get to chose our first words, nor do we get to chose the first language we ever learn to speak.
I was 10 or 11 years old when my mother banned me from speaking in Malayalam. We had recently moved to Bathinda, a small city in Punjab, where my father was posted. I was enrolled in one of only two, allegedly ‘English medium schools’ in the city, and my mother was teaching first graders in the same school. She felt that my ‘pure convent English’ would get tainted by the English spoken at school – a blasphemous Hinglish with a side of Punjabi in her opinion. Since the language I spoke outside the house was beyond her realm of influence, she decided to preserve my English skills by ensuring I speak it at home. Malayalam was an unfortunate, but acceptable casualty.
Over the years, my Malayalam speaking was reduced to stuttering conversations I had with my relatives in Kerala, two or three times a year. The movies I loved watching with my cousins as a kid sitting on the red oxide floor of our grandmother’s house became an arduous task of contextualizing and guesswork. I began to rely on facial expressions and prosody to understand the punchlines of Jagathy Sreekumar’s jokes. I hesitated to give any more detail than necessary when answering questions from aunts and uncles for fear of being unable to finish my sentences. On one occasion when my grandmother was serving me a portion of a dish made especially for me, I couldn’t remember the words for a polite ‘just a little amooma’ in time, and instead said a brasher ‘venda amooma’ for ‘no’.
Back home, the language barrier manifested itself in its own ways. During arguments with my mother who was raised in Kerala, I found myself unable to respond to her angriest accusations. Even today, they begin in English and end with my mother grumbling away in rapid Malayalam.
On a few occasions in my early twenties, I made an attempt to learn Malayalam formally. I enrolled in online classes. I subscribed briefly to the daily Malayala Manorama. On one occasion I bought two copies of the Mahabharata, one in English and one in Malayalam to compare and study. None of these attempts were as sincere as I hoped them to be and I was quickly distracted from each effort. Living in a cosmopolitan city where friends and family speak in English or Hindi offers very little encouragement to study a new language out of choice.
While I still felt the pressures and isolation of being an outsider among family due to language barriers, my brother was blissfully unaware and perhaps, even got along better with some of my relatives despite understanding far less Malayalam than I did. Maybe, it was because he was younger, or maybe because I softened the blow for the family. Unlike me, he has spent all his life outside Kerala, and has somehow watched and learnt to navigate the annual holidays without embarrassment and silent judgements.
Most of the second and third generation South Indians I know that are living outside their ancestral land are like my brother. While many can speak a certain version of their mother tongue, most cannot read or write. Unless I marry a Malayali who speaks Malayalam, or live in Kerala, it is very unlikely that my children will learn the language. Perhaps, this linguistic separation is only the most apparent symptom in a larger case of our dwindling association with our ancestral homeland. It is definitely an important one because in many ways, a language block puts you on a path of no return.
Is there a way to effectively preserve one language without compromising another – especially for migrants within a country as linguistically diverse as India? Accomplished bilinguals and trilinguals will say it us up to the elders who raise one, and of course one’s own inclinations. It is easy to believe that I am a victim of language chauvinism that I never had to overcome. Do I have a responsibility towards my mother tongue to learn it, even if I don’t really need to? Perhaps not. But sometimes I think about the conversations I would like to have with my grandmother and sometimes, I wish I didn’t miss Jagathy’s jokes.