by Anita Menon
“Does your child speak your mother tongue?” , a neighbour asked me in the lift today. Though I did not know her well, she thought it appropriate to enter into my personal space and ask me this question. I shrugged and replied, irresponsibly, “Not really.” Then I paused to think and added, ” Actually no. She refuses to speak both my mother tongue that is Malayalam and my husband’s which is Hindi.” “Oh, that’s a shame.” , she replied and thankfully, in seconds which seemed like hours the lift hit the ground floor and we went our separate ways. I had half a mind to call her back and offer my side of the story. Some how I wasn’t prepared to take that responsibility and the guilt of raising a child who didn’t speak any of the mother tongues. I wanted to pass the blame on to my stubborn 4-year-old who pretends to not hear when we speak to her in any language other than English.
I had to pass on this guilt.
She ( the neighbour) couldn’t just walk away making me feel so small. Did her children know all her mother tongues? Wait a minute, I didn’t even know if she had children or for that matter she spoke any language other than English because that is the the language we used to converse. After all, what is her concern, if my daughter spoke in her mother tongue! I was surprised at the angst that I was feeling for these few seconds of dialogue exchanged in a lift. I was on my way to the gym and rest of the way I was occupied by this thought. At the gym, I asked my instructor if his son spoke Telgu ( he is from Hyderabad), to which he said ,”Only a few words”. His son was too young to speak but he said he will make sure that he spoke Telgu like he was born in Hyderabad. I was amazed at my training instructor’s passion. Did I feel such a passion towards my roots?
Off late, yes.
It is a recent phenomenon where I am drawn to everything that was remotely connected to Kerala – cuisine, travel destinations, movies, news, relatives and language. My parents are here and that itself increases my chances of speaking in Malayalam. We have been watching a lot of Malayalam movies these days and I am drawn to their simple yet ingenious plots. Clever film makers and insanely talented younger breed of actors have churned one excellent movie after the other. There cannot be a successful Hindi / Bollywood equivalent or even Hollywood. Translation would kill the spirit and remake would falsify the effort. I have learnt a whole new set of vocabulary through these movies and it feels like an achievement.
That my mother is around has also ensured that we eat a lot of Kerala cuisine. Vegetarian. I have been showcasing a lot of that food on my Instagram under the #ammasrecipes. Each time I have a meal, all my childhood memories come rushing back to me. Then I begin to wonder what memories will my child have about my signature food. Do I have any signature recipes like my mum does? All these questions and doubts worry me no end.
Having grown up in Gujarat, I had limited exposure to Kerala and its culture. All the cultural exposure was cramped into a month that I spent with my cousins and grand parents in the summer holidays. I felt like an outlier that you look at with contempt outside the bell curve. I couldn’t speak the language fluently. That I spoke and wrote Gujarati like it was my mother tongue did not matter. I was an outcast and that made me a rebel. I refused to learn the language or the cultural nuances, how ever hard my parents tried. I was comfortable being the outcast. I responded in English and that limited my interaction with everyone back in Kerala. This absolved me from a lot of responsibilities and I was happy being in my own company.
Fast forward 17 years and Mimi happened. There is something about having your own offspring that evokes a deep cultural sentiment inside. It wants you to get back to your roots and find your lost connections. It wants you to give that experience to your progeny so that they can find that connect early on and not struggle like you did, or feel lost like you did. For the longest time, as a student and later as a working professional, I felt lost. I felt no attachment to my Kerala heritage and Gujarat I had left long back. I still remember, in one of the client discussions in New Jersey, my American Manager asked me where I was from. I promptly answered, ‘ I feel global. I am a global citizen’. He laughed and that is how he referred to me during the rest of the time I was in NJ. Marrying a hubby from the North of India added more complexity to my identity. I was a Keralite, who felt like a Gujarati and now was married to a North Indian. A child born in such complexity will never have an easy time figuring out the ” belonging’ part. I empathize with her and hence never made any severe attempts to make her familiar with anything that would remotely cause clash of culture in her mind. She had to be kept out of it. That is why, I didn’t make special efforts to teach her my language or my husband’s even. I thought whenever she would hear us speaking she would learn automatically. Unfortunately, that did not happen and I didn’t force her.
But now as I grow older, I want to make more Malayalee friends so that I get the opportunity to speak the language and feel one with the community. Funnily, even now when I speak in Malayalam, it feels like a foreign language to me. But a foreign language that I feel very close to.
I feel like I want to ‘belong’. I don’t want to be an outcast anymore. I feel a deep sense of shame when I have to confess that I can’t read or write Malayalam. As I write this post, I am torn between exposing my daughter to the rich cultural heritage of Kerala, which I, myself am not too aware of and just letting her be. Should I just allow life to take its own course and not intervene? Is it too late or too early? Likewise, I leave the onus of introducing our daughter to the vibrant culture of the north to my husband.
These are complicated decisions. Complicated to my mind even now cause I was deeply affected by feeling like an outcast but later, I was comfortable in my outcast skin. Growing up, I cannot even imagine how my daughter would feel as she comes from two very different cultures and is now growing up in a completely different culture of Bahrain. A subset, within a subset within a subset! Only time will tell how easy or difficult it is going to be for her.