Everytime my Achan comes to Bangalore to visit us, he brings a suitcase full of vegetables and coconuts for my sister and a book or two for me. This is a bit of a ritual. Even if he doesn’t bring a book for me per se, he’ll bring one for himself which, chances are, I will nick. Having been at the wrong end of the book-theft-program quite a few times, he now travels almost always with a spare book for yours truly.
This time when he came to visit, he bought me the Malayalam translation of a Kannada book named “Bhujangayyana Dasavataragalu” (which can be roughly translated as the Ten Avatars of Bhujangayan, the protagonist) written by Srikrishna Alanahalli. I started reading it, got hooked and swore to finish it, only to be frustrated by how slow a progress I am making.
You see, there is a pattern here. Everytime I start reading a Malayalam book, I start off with a lot of enthusiasm – grand plans on how I’m going to read it, absorb it and talk about it eloquently to anyone who will listen. And almost everytime, I lose interest halfway through. Well, lose interest is too broad a term. What actually happens is I give up on the language.
I am extremely ashamed to admit this, but it is true. Malayalam is not my mental home ground. One of my English teachers in school used to tell us that to master a language, we have to start thinking in that language. “Most of you”, she used to say, “think in Malayalam and then try to convert it to English. That is why you find English frustrating. Think in English. THINK in English”, she used to repeat time and again.
For me, the case is often opposite. This is not to say that I don’t know Malayalam. I speak fluent Malayalam, I write, I read – all good. What I lack is the ability to appreciate Malayalam literature, the ability to articulate emotions or experiences beautifully. And I can’t put in plain words how much this frustrates and depresses me.
To be fair, I was not always like this. For a better part of my life, I was not aware of what I was missing. I have officially studied Malayalam till 4th std. After that, I took up Sanskrit as an elective. (if you have an hour or two to spare, lemme know. I can rant on and on about how ‘raama, raamau, raamah!’ screwed up my life) And it amuses me to no end what followed. Around 6th std or so, our school saw an influx of NRI malayalees – kids who had grown up in Dubai or Kuwait. Kids who spoke flawless English and took pride in saying “enik Malayalam korach korach ariyam” (“I know very little Malayalam). Stories of how they can’t read Malayalam and how they ‘speak only English’ at home were shared with a lot of panache. Not to be left behind, I decided to follow suit. No more Malayalam. Na-ah. I became a I-am-too-cool-for-Malayalam person. I wrote out notes to my amma in Manglish. And when she pulled my leg about it, I ignored her.
Somewhere in 9th std, a lot of things changed for me. I don’t remember why or how, but looking back, I think of that period as ‘the time I grew a spine’. Among other epiphanies, it dawned on me how shameful it is that I can’t write a word in my mother tongue. And being the stupidly persistent person that I am, I decided to rectify this by spending an entire summer vacation copy-writing the headlines of each day’s Malayalam newspaper until my handwriting stopped resembling that of a 5-year-old.
But somewhere in between all this, I forgot to learn to appreciate fine Malayalam literature. Contrary to popular opinion, I believe that good tastes are acquired, not instinctive. Sure, the effort that you are willing to put in matters a lot, but it also matter when you put in that effort. There is such a thing called the ‘formative years’ and what you are exposed to then is likely to stay with you forever.
As I grew up, I often lamented (albeit privately) that I didn’t put in enough effort into understanding Malayalam literature. Today I have an additional concern. My baby niece, my MiniatureHuman (or Mihu, as I call her) is growing up in Bangalore. A place that is an amalgamation of all cultures and lifestyles. A place where she will learn a lot of things that I hadn’t. But will she learn her mother tongue? When she hears a poem in her mothertongue, will she appreciate the emotion in it or will she just…process it? I am worried, because as Vineeth Sreenivasan said in an interview, there will come a time in every person’s life when he/she will feel culturally adrift. It is only then that you will realise how closely linked your identity and your roots are.