21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 2 day celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life - sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
(This post was sent by Yamini Vijayan. Yamini manages content for StoryWeaver, Pratham Books. When she feels like she could use a break from children's stories, she likes to watch funny bits from Malayalam movies made in the 80s and 90s, or wander about in parks in Indiranagar, Bangalore.)
I grew up reading a lot of Malayalam poetry.
That's how I would have liked to start this post for International Mother Language Day. Unfortunately, I read Malayalam poetry only in school and mostly because I had no choice but to. So let me begin again, with a little more honesty.
I grew up watching a LOT of Malayalam movies, perhaps a lot more than I should have. I watched comedy that everyone in my generation continues to quote from (anything with the actor Srinivasan in it, really), the arthouse stuff (on TV during late afternoons when I would have just returned from school), the thrillers, 'family' movies and well, just about anything I could get my hands on.
My relationship with Malayalam - the language I grew up speaking - has been hugely influenced by Malayalam cinema. I discovered the existence of many, many words from just listening to Malayalam songs. Sometimes I wouldn't even know what they meant because some of these songs are loaded with high-flown poetry but they still felt delicious against the roof of my mouth.
A few years ago, while hanging around uselessly in the kitchen as my mother tossed vegetables into the tawa, I heard this very familiar tune on one of the Malayalam radio channels. I knew I hadn't listened to this song in years, but I seemed to know most of the lyrics to this song and I had no idea how. And all of a sudden, there was this flood of imagery: of this young man and woman splashing about in a beach, dressed as if they were going to play cricket (strange but true). Within seconds, I remembered more such details and ended up finding it on Youtube. It's hard to explain how I felt watching the video (and yes, they were wearing white gloves, knee guards and hats) – because I tend to read a lot about memory, nostalgia and so on – but I was deeply moved and elated. Since then, I find myself going back to this song every other week, especially because of its very poignant lyrics (and bonus: subtitles in English).
I guess I hadn't anticipated that I'd one day feel so sentimental about Malayalam, and it surprises me every time I do. Like the first time I called my husband's phone (we had just met then) eight years ago and heard his caller tune:
(An old song translating roughly to: In the land of coconuts, I own a little patch of land.)
Back then, I hadn't yet discovered that he could speak fluent Malayalam. Or that we'd laugh a lot harder while speaking in Malayalam (as opposed to English).
Okay, so I'm digressing, but here's the thing. While growing up in Kerala, I never felt particularly attached to my mother tongue. It's only after having moved away, that I started to appreciate Malayalam. And while I've made several sincere attempts to read Malayalam literature - with very little success – it's really through cinema and music (film and independent) that my relationship with Malayalam has grown stronger. In fact, I often worry if I've turned into one of those old uncles I was once so scornful of, singing Malayalam songs late into the night, with moist-eyed sentimentality.