A towering modern Malayalam poet recently expressed his disgust at how many young Malayalis are improficient in their mother tongue, and at the education system that enables this. “Let this generation, which doesn’t know the language, forget me,” proclaimed Balachandran Chullikkad, 60. A campus icon in his youth, he would now like his works to be removed from all educational curricula in order to keep them safe from the younger generation. It was a poetry reading session at a university that prompted this, when a student—a postgraduate student of Sanskrit, no less—handed him a note requesting a particular poem; the note was riddled with spelling errors, such as Aanantam instead of Aanandam ‘bliss’.
Hearing about this made me introspect: am I one of the leading lights of this damnable generation? Certainly, I would never have made that particular mistake with Aanandam, but there are many other pitfalls I might have fallen into. I enjoy reading and listening to Malayalam poetry myself, but sometimes I find that I’ve understood hardly half the words in a particularly Sanskritised poem. And I don’t trust myself to compose even a sentence of prose without agonising over the possibility that there might be a mistake in there somewhere. This is the fate of an NRI who never stopped loving his mother tongue.
It all started on a cold November’s day in ’98, when my mother and I disembarked at London Heathrow Airport to join my father, who had been working in England for a few years. I was all of seven years old, my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering, my jumper (sweater) was unbearably itchy and I was endlessly fascinated by the fact that I could now see my breath in the wintry air. I was less amused by how everything seemed so grey and perpetually overcast, and by how you couldn’t see the stars at night—a far cry from the clear skies of Kerala.
I found primary school in Hull a bit pathetic after St Thomas in Trivandrum. The other children, it seemed, could barely write anything in their own language—whereas I could already spell ‘photosynthesis’, and was inordinately proud of the fact. Mathematics in particular was a joke. But there was much I had to unlearn as well: I couldn’t say four into five anymore; it had to be four times five. My thick accent was the biggest obstacle: nobody could deduce what I meant when I said “it’s raining”, which they heard as “it’s laining” (I’d always struggled with my ‘r’s in Malayalam as well, as my father still likes to remind me).
I began to lose whatever proficiency I’d acquired in written Malayalam very quickly: a letter written to my grandmother soon after we’d moved is full of ill-formed letters and other errors, and my mother’s own attached note bemoans the fact. But somehow, I never entirely forgot how to read and write. Years later, after I’d developed an interest in languages, I managed to regain the ability with a bit of practice, starting from a base that hadn’t completely vanished. I can now read at a fairly normal pace (but I still can’t speed-read, or skim a passage looking for something in particular, as I can in English), and write at an excruciatingly slow pace in letters that look like they’ve been typed—I can’t read handwritten Malayalam to save my life.
When it came to the spoken language, I was fortunate. Many migrant parents like to speak English to their children at home—either because they think speaking in their mother tongue will interfere with the children’s ability to learn English, or due to some strange post-colonial inferiority complex. Thankfully, my father found (and still finds) the idea absurd, and we continued to speak in Malayalam. But it was a functional sort of Malayalam for domestic life, liberally peppered with English loanwords as and when required. I never acquired a higher vocabulary in the language.
My interest in languages only grew over the years, until I completed an MA in Linguistics, the scientific study of language. My dissertation was on the semantics of epistemic indefinites in Malayalam. I could tell you many interesting things about the language and its history, and relate constructions in modern Malayalam to their antecedents in Sangam Age Tamil. I’ve spent a few years in India as an adult now, and grown more comfortable in Malayalam; I’ve even tried my hand at writing poetry—it came upon me in a fit of feverish inspiration as I gazed upon the moon in the middle of a cloudy sky in Kodaikanal. I went back home, “recollected in tranquility” and wrote what I could, vaguely aping the style of Kumaran Asan without really adhering to the strict rules of metre.
Despite all this, it’s still common for something basic to cause me to stumble (usually a Sanskrit-derived word, from that higher vocabulary I never learned at school). While reading a newspaper a few months ago, I had to stop and ask my father what bharanaghatana viruddham meant (‘unconstitutional’). My incomplete grasp of my mother tongue is still a painful subject, and admonitions such as the poet’s still strike at the heart. It probably wasn’t aimed at people in my situation, I realise, but it still makes me question my place in all this—what of those of us stuck in this isthmus of a middle state, perhaps more proficient in English but soothed only by the sounds of a Malayalam lullaby? In the end, I choose to base my stand on another poet’s dictum; in the words of Vallathol Narayana Menon:
"Mattulla bhashakal kevalam dhatrimar; marthyannu pettamma tan bhasha than." (‘Other tongues are but foster mothers; a man’s birth mother is his own language’).
The writer is a journalist with Outlook.