21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 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 to us by Shweta Ganesh Kumar. Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a Writer and Parenting columnist. She is the bestselling author of ‘Coming Up On The Show’ and ‘Between The Headlines’, two novels on the Indian Broadcast News Industry. Her last worldwide release ‘A Newlywed’s Adventures in Married Land,’ a modern take on Alice In Wonderland got rave reviews from critics and readers alike and has been consistently ranked high in Amazon India’s 100 bestsellers in Indian writing list. Her travel columns have been featured in Travel and Flavours, Venture, The New Indian Express, One Philippines and Geo. Her non-fiction pieces have appeared in multiple Indian editions of the Chicken Soup series. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in more than twenty anthologies and online literary magazines in more than four continents.
She is also the Founder-Editor of The Times Of Amma, an online community dedicated to inspiring mothers one day at a time, featuring real life stories on honest parenting and interviews with inspirational mothers and grandmothers. Shweta currently lives in The Philippines with her two children and husband. You can read more about her life and work at www.shwetaganeshkumar.com)
What is a mother tongue to someone who lives thousands of kilometers away from where it is spoken?
And what purpose does it serve, other than sneakily give you a thick accent and a penchant for mispronouncing certain words of other languages?
And why is it that despite the fact that I have not used my mother tongue, Malayalam for official purposes in years, it is still my comfort food, my happy place and a warm familiar embrace?
For the answers to all of the above, we must start at the beginning.
Like a lot of other Malayalis born in the 80s, I too was a Gulf child. My family was based in Muscat, Oman for the first ten years of my life. Back then I was just an NRI kid. The concepts of a ‘third culture childhood’ were virtually unknown. For the uninitiated, third culture kids are expatriate children who have three cultures to call their own. The first being the parent’s culture or the culture of their country of origin, the second being the culture of the country where they reside and the third, a happy mixture of the first two. Back then though, we were just Indians nay Malayalis, living in the Gulf. My culture was very firmly my parent’s culture. And nothing reinforced this more than the language we spoke at home, my mother tongue – Malayalam.
My Mother despite holding an advanced degree in English Literature loved (and still loves) her mother tongue. Her father, Editor and Leader Writer of the Malayala Manorama had entrusted her with one important responsibility when she left with me as a ten -month -old babe to distant lands. And that was that his grandchild would learn to speak Malayalam and not ‘Kurachu, Kurachu Ariyaam’ (I can speak little, little) type of Malayalam, said with a heavy accent of English, but fluent, rich Malayalam. My mother took it to heart and both her as well as my father ensured that I did. There was no formal sitting down with Malayalam books or ‘native tongue hour’ in our household to make sure I spoke the mother tongue. This was just what they spoke and I spoke. My first words were in Malayalam. My oldest memories have a Malayalam soundtrack in the background. And even now, when I play old Malayalam songs from the 80s, I can picture my mother cooking while our old stereo, flanked by tall towers of audio - cassettes blared out songs from the large, space-hoarding speakers.
We came back to Kerala in the middle of the nineties. My parents were tired of being so far away from family and I an only child was excited to return to the fold of my extended family. Despite it being the middle of the year, I got in to a nice school in Kozhikode. The one subject that had me wincing and my teachers shaking their heads was Malayalam. I could speak the language well, yet my reading skills had not progressed beyond the alphabet that many liken to the delicious swirls of Jalebi. In my first mid-term test, I secured 9 marks out of 50. ‘18%’. Marks that are seared in my brain. A tutor was found. A retired teacher in the residential colony we lived in with her hair severely tied into a bun. Sitting in the front verandah, she started me on text books from the first standard. I ‘a-aa, e-eed’ my way through them, working hard to avoid her stony glares and pursed lips. When I graduated from high school, I scored 95% in Malayalam and I could read the Malayala Manorama from cover to cover.
I bid adieu to academic Malayalam at the age of fourteen. I now, no longer had to read in Malayalam if I really didn’t want to. The first time I had sat down with my brand new ruled notebook and Nataraj pencil on the cold marble slab of tutor’s verandah, I had never thought I would want to. Yet, my mother tongue had gotten the better of me. Somewhere along the road of the Sandhis and Samasams of Malayalam grammar, I had fallen in love with my mother tongue.
Malayalam was now the language I used with my closest friends in Kozhikodan slang that no one outside our town would understand.
Malayalam was the language of the poems my Mother taught me to recite in.
Malayalam was the language of sarcasm and wit and biting rejoinders.
Malayalam was what made me unique and common at the same time.
I carried it with me as I travelled onward and away from Kerala. I used it in the hidden alleys of Pune as we went searching for a Malabari restaurant that sold Kerala Parotta. I used it in the locals of Mumbai as someone asked me for the time. I carried it with me as Sugutha Kumari’s poetry. I drowned in it as M.T. Vasudevan’s Randam Oozham. I found pieces of home in it as I watched bootlegged Malayalam movies on YouTube after I moved to Manila.
And when I became a Mother myself, I found it flooding my heart and my brain as it rushed out to gather my daughter in the maternal embrace of Irayiman Thampi’s Omana Thinkal Kidavo, lulling her to sleep safely ensconced in the words of her ancestral culture, making itself at home in the corners of her heart.
To me, my mother tongue Malayalam is the language of my roots. It grounds me firmly in my identity as a Malayali. Yet like all good mothers, Malayalam is also the wind beneath my wings that helps me have multilingual dreams and envision the same rainbow coloured dreams for my children. And though I fall in love with many more languages as I have in the years that have gone by and the years that will, Malayalam will always remain that first love who taught me what it feels like to talk and have someone understand everything that you say. Malayalam will always be the language of my soul.
Image Source : Souparna