Mother tongue

“Malayalam sansarikkua?”


I could have been witty. I could have said ‘illa’. I know how that’s pronounced, when it’s used. But then that might incorrectly translate into the opposite. “Ah, nyan sansarikku”. Ah, because to the best of my (limited) knowledge, there’s no word that directly means ‘yes’. 

I’ll never learn to read it at this point. There’s a character or two for every sound. The words will never flow naturally into each other. Maybe if I try hard enough, I’ll be able to pick some letters out of a text. Not enough to cut and paste into a sentence, but enough to spell my name. 

It’s not always an alienating device. When I hear the familiar accent, not as thick as Tamil, not as tongue-twisting as Telugu, on the bus or in a classroom, I feel a sense of pride, a sweetness of belonging, that I’m possibly the only other one in the room who understands. 

My church alternates between Malayalam and English every Sunday. Standing on the right side, the women’s side, I would always be in awe of how they seemed to know every word of the seemingly endless songs and prayers, without glancing at the little maroon prayer books. The books had the lyrics inscribed in Malayalam, in traditional and romanised characters, but the romanised Malayalam was as foreign to me as it would be to a German. I preferred to grab the words from the warmth of the memories of my Amma singing us to sleep, helped with the grace of God’s songs. Mother’s tongue.

I don’t need to learn it. I could live my life without learning it. I don’t plan to live in India, and even if I did, I could get around with English. If I absolutely had to, I would learn Hindi. 45 million speakers may sound like an abundance, but when they’re scattered in all the corners of the Earth, it’s not a necessity. I would have liked to be fluent. Able to have two tongues, able to switch between them. I would have liked to have a community.

That’s my relationship with Malayalam. My friend and enemy. Whom I can understand, but who can’t understand me and yet remembers me as a child, knows things about me that I never could have imagined. Who can isolate me, with words I can’t grasp the meaning of, and who comforts me with the way their voice rises and falls, like the ripples on the backwaters they rose from.

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