At one point, my daughter could say 'No' in all the five languages that she was exposed to and we thought she'd become a UN translator; then she grew up.

news Blog Monday, June 03, 2019 - 17:12

I'm a Malayali who was born and raised in Chennai. I can speak Malayalam fluently but cannot read or write the language though I'm familiar with a few letters of the alphabet, thanks to some early attempts made by my mother to teach me. The attempts, as is apparent, were not very successful because in the little time that I had after school, I did not want to learn Malayalam. I wanted to play with my friends, watch TV and laze around. When we would visit our hometown in Kerala, I would try and read the names of places on bus boards in Malayalam. It was easy to guess because I was familiar with the places; it was fun because it was a game and nobody was grading me on it.

The only Indian language that I can speak, read and write is Tamil. It's also the only Indian language the literary form of which I can understand. Television debates on Malayalam channels leave me wondering if I'm listening to an alien tongue. I don't have that problem with Tamil, which I studied till Class X. 

Of course, I also studied Hindi. I went to a CBSE school and Hindi was my third language from Class VI to VIII. Neither of my parents knew any Hindi though my father often claims that he's passed the Rashtra Basha exam. As a consequence, my brother and I were utterly clueless about the language when we had to learn it. But this was okay because we were in Tamil Nadu and most of our classmates were in the same boat. We learnt rhymes on what a thitthli did and what it did not do. It made no difference to my life because it was a language we never used anywhere. I would occasionally watch Hindi movies but I could understand these without knowing a word of Hindi because the plots were all the same. Boy loves Girl. Girl's father does not like him. Several songs and crying later, Boy and Girl unite. In middle school, I bought a 'COOL' chain like Shah Rukh Khan after watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai without understanding any of the dialogues in the film.

My Hindi teacher was a terror. She would send notebooks flying in class and even hit students though it was against the rules. It did not make me love the language any better. I remember a Hindi exam when I wrote all the words above the line when it was supposed to have been written below the line. I spent half the allotted time erasing my answers and writing them, unable to finish the paper. I still passed.

At the end of three years, I had cleared all my Hindi exams without learning the language. It was the same for most of us who had chosen Tamil as the second language (Hindi and Sanskrit were the other second language options). I remember when I went to the UK for my Master's, a German student was surprised to know that I could read Hindi (because I still knew the letters) but could not understand or speak it. It was beyond her how anyone could have "learnt" a language like this. I told her there was no reason to be so shocked - I'd done the same with French, which I'd "learnt" in my undergraduate course. I fulfilled my course credit but other than saying "Allo!" and a few generic sentences, I didn't know French either.

Now you may think I must have been a numbskull. Not at all. I was always in the top 5% of my class and passed out of my BA (in English, I must add) with a gold medal. But I strongly believed in expending energy on something only when I saw the need for it. Hindi and French were unnecessary to my life, so I turned my back on both.

Then I got married to a Telugu man. He grew up in Tamil Nadu, too, so we both spoke in Tamil and English to each other. I didn't put any effort into learning Telugu because my partner was, at any rate, more Tamil than Telugu, just as I was more Tamil than Malayali.

But then, we had a daughter.

When I was pregnant and we both would take turns to speak to the baby inside, I would speak in Malayalam while he'd speak in Tamil. But once the baby was born, some switch went off within him and he unleashed a stream of Telugu on the unsuspecting baby. I learnt Telugu then, because it came to me as a language of love. Previously, I used to think it was a language that was harsh on the ear. But seeing my daughter respond to it and lisp the words, nothing in the world sounded sweeter.

At one point, my daughter could speak Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, English and a little bit of Hindi (we no longer lived in Tamil Nadu). In any case, she could say a resounding 'NO' in all of these languages. To her maternal grandparents and me, she spoke in Malayalam and English. To her paternal grandparents, who are not as comfortable with English, she spoke in Telugu. To my husband, it was Telugu and English and with her babysitter, it was Hindi.

Certainly, we thought she had a bright future as a towering literary figure or at the very least, a translator at the UN.

But then, she grew up and developed her own opinions. She went to an English medium school and decided that there was no reason to labour and speak to one parent in Malayalam and the other in Telugu. She spoke to both of us in English. It's true that we could have insisted that she speaks the two Indian languages but then, I also wish I had the time to grow my own tomatoes and milk my own cow and give my child only 100% organic food. In our hectic life, it was less important to say "GET READY NOW!" in Indian languages and argue about the response than accomplish the task. And there's also the tiny fact that neither my husband nor I can read and write in our respective mother tongue though we can speak it.

Whenever someone asked us what our language was, my husband and I would launch into a lengthy explanation, "One is a Malayali, the other is a Telugu, but we speak in Tamil to each other - haha!". Perhaps tired of this non-joke, my daughter once answered this question poker-faced, "I'm English."

None of this means that she has no sense of identity.

She watches films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English. She knows Rajinikanth's punch dialogues. She knows recipes in Telugu. She can say tongue twisters in Malayalam. She speaks in Telugu to her paternal grandparents because she wants to communicate with them, but seldom slips into it with her father. I've heard her singing in Tamil though neither of her parents is technically Tamil and she does not live in Tamil Nadu.

She's happy to belong here, there and everywhere. She takes pride in her south Indian identity and does not like it when Indian cartoons make the south Indian character speak English in a funny accent. She's a fan of idli-sambar. She likes eating on a plantain leaf and loves the idea of Onam though she does not like coconut in her food yet.

My Hindi has improved since we moved. Which isn't saying much because one can only improve from level 0. My husband, who lived with north Indian roommates in the US during his PhD days, is way better at it. I can understand Hindi reasonably well (if the subject isn't too complicated). I can speak it with a lot of grammatical mistakes. I get by. I haven't landed in Azkaban yet because of my directions in Hindi to the auto guy.

In an ideal world, I would have my daughter learn to speak, read and write all the languages to which she owes her allegiance. But then, she wants to learn gymnastics. She wants to go for karate and art classes. She has a mind of her own and a tongue of her own. And there's only 24 hours in a day. Who am I to impose my ambitions on her? I can only hope that she will learn whichever language whenever she feels like it - when she needs it or when she falls in love with it. 

My daughter's Hindi isn't great though it's better than mine. It's the one subject where she isn't at the top of her class but somewhere in the middle. She has friends who are Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Rajasthani and a host of other identities. They all speak in English to each other but also pick up words from here and there. Like when we went to Kolkata for a holiday, my daughter knew "jhol" is water though we didn't. They go to each other's homes and eat unfamiliar food. They watch serials in languages they don't know because the concerned grandparent is sitting before the TV. They learn songs in a tongue they cannot speak as yet in school and sing it absent-mindedly at home.

Looking at them, I can't see "culture" dying. I see it thriving.

(Views expressed author's own)