Tuesday, February 21, 2017

So Which Language Do You Speak At Home?

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 by Rakhee Iyer. Rakhee is the mother of two girls who plan between themselves, to make her hair grey by the time she turns 35..She is a chemical engineer who is still searching for the perfect distillation column to ensure a continuous supply of cold chocolate milkshake. When she is in the real world, she spends her time reading books, making guinea pigs of her family with her cooking and looking for the perfect spot to sleep.)

I must admit, it is very difficult for me to answer this question. Between the spouse and me, we speak many languages, and we understand many more. The biggest advantage of growing up in a middle class family in India is that you learn about 3 languages by default. English, Hindi and then the language of the state you are in. And if happen to be in a state which is different from what your mother tongue is, you learn some additional languages, too.

 When we got married and went to stay in Bombay, people often thought we were a mixed marriage couple. Since I grew up in Baroda and the spouse grew up in Calcutta, for a long time, people in his office thought we were a Gujarati married to a Bengali couple. Until, they visited us and realised we are actually speaking a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam at home, and answering to our neighbours queries in Marathi, while switching between English and Hindi, intermittently.

Illustration : Kabini Amin
So which language do you actually speak at home?” they asked us. And trust me, this has happened so often to us that we really don’t have an answer. Until, the brilliant me came up with the language we speak. We speak ‘Khicidi’ at home. For the uninitiated, Kichidi or Khichuri, (see, same word but different ways of pronouncing it in different languages) is the most amazing I-am- home-sick- and-I- want-some- hot-steaming- mom-ke- haath-ka- bana kind of food you can eat. Every region in India has its own amazing version of it, but it basically is a mixture of rice, vegetables, lentils and spices to create a concoction of divine taste. And the language we speak at home is something like that. A little bit of Tamil influence, a bit of Malayalam words, sprinkled with a few Bengali phrases, and a smattering of Gujarati with a dash of Marathi and a lot of Hindi and English.

So we really cannot answer the question ‘What language do you speak at home’. I speak to my brother in Gujarati and Hindi, while the spouse speaks to his sister in Bengali. My parents speak to each other in Tamil and English, while my in-laws speak in Malayalam and Tamil. So you get it, right?

There have been some hilarious instances in our lives thanks to our Khicidi language. For example, my mother in law, calls onion ‘ulli’ (onion in Malayalam). I had never heard the term ‘ulli’ before because my parents call it ‘vengazhyam’ (onion in Tamil) So when I first got married, she had come over and asked me to give her ‘ulli’ Now me being me, a bit hard of hearing, thanks to all people around, heard it as ‘ullu’ (owl in Hindi, but also used to call someone a fool in Bombay!). I thought she was calling me a fool. I looked at her in dismay. ‘Why, Amma?’ I asked her. She looked at me bewildered, wondering why I was asking her why. ‘Why what’, she asked. ‘Why why Amma’, I said again. Midst all this whys which went on for like 2 minutes, the spouse came in asking why we were why-ing at each other. Amma said ‘I asked her for an ulli and she is asking me why why what is with this girl?’ The spouse looked at me questioningly and I told him ‘Well, Amma is calling me a fool and I don’t know why, so I want to know why, why can’t I know why?’ The spouse just pulled his hair and asked his mom to repeat what she was saying and burst out laughing. ‘Ullu, nahi re baba, she is saying Ulli which means onion in Malayalam’. And the why-ing and the confusion was sorted out.

After that, my mother in law, always always asks me if I have understood what she means so that there is no more of that hair tearing why-ing happening in the house.

Do you know puffed rice? Mamra in Gujarati and Mudi in Bengali. Since my mom was born and brought up in Calcutta, we have always used the word Mudi at home. And Mamra when my parents had to go and buy it in the shop in Baroda. When I came to Bombay, I confidently went to a kirana store and asked that guy ‘bhai, 100 gram mudi dena’ (Brother, please give me 100 grams of puffed rice). He looked at me and said ‘madam, kaiii’ (Madam, what – in Marathi). 'Arey mudi, mudi', I said looking around if I could point it out to him. Then realising that he may know what mamra is, I said 'bhau mamra mamra paiyje' (Brother, I want puffed rice – in Marathi) He still looked at me bewildered. I did not know what to do. I spent about 5 minutes trying to explain to him how it was like poha (flattened rice) but a more puffed up version like a balloon, and in all that explanation, an old gentleman was standing at the corner of the shop, laughing at me. He came and said ‘Bhau, biaika la kurmura dyaa’ (Brother, give puffed rice to the lady). And then told me how mamra was a Gujarati word and puffed rice is kurmura in Marathi.

I can keep writing on these wonderful incidents which have happened to me, thanks to the mishmash of so many languages. It is amazing how I know so many words in so many languages without even realising it is in that language. For example, for a long time (till last week) I thought ‘baati’ (bowl) was bowl in Marathi, until the spouse corrected me at a Maharashtrian friend’s house saying ‘its Bengali and it is called ‘vaati’ in Marathi’ See one syllable and no one understands you :). Or the phrase ‘Theek aache’ which is so Bengali but my Tamil speaking father has adapted as his own and uses it for everything and anything, to anyone even if they don’t know a word of Bengali.

Languages are means of communication but they are also the rich heritage we have. Can you imagine how dull our world would be if we all spoke the same language? There would be so much lesser laughter, so much lesser confusion and so much lesser happiness, then! I still lament the fact that I did not learn Tamil when my parents offered to teach me as a kid. I am missing out on such rich literature which is often lost in translation. I personally believe, the more the languages you know, the richer is your life! This International Mother Language Day, go on and start learning your mother tongue or a new language, because, trust me, more words, more knowledge, more fun!

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