Saturday, February 26, 2011

Discovering My Mother Tongue

Last week as I waited at the airport with a  copy of Madhavikutty’s Balyakala Smarnakal, it almost seemed to surprise a few that someone was reading a non-English book – acceptable at railway stations maybe but at airports, was it culturally out of place? It is kind of unfashionable to strut around with a vernacular language book when even writers like Salman Rushdie proclaim that Indian English writers are far superior to writers in Indian languages.

The urban educated Indian is essentially a polyglot; he normally speaks English, his mother tongue and another language, possibly Hindi or the language of the state he is in. But there is some sort of an identity crisis (my favourite subject) with this plethora of languages that he has to indulge in to survive. Thinking in a language, speaking in one formally, another informally and struggling in some others makes it a bit of a jamboree.

At the age of three, I moved to Hyderabad moving away from the rural idleness of my village in Elappully to a small, conservative urban city unspoilt by the denizens of the IT world. We quickly learnt to use English as our primary language and the mother tongue was slowly getting eroded; the only usage was at home and when we visited Palakkad during our summer vacations in May. Honestly, language did not mean anything to us at that time and we were comfortable ranting in English and Hindi; cultural identities come to the fore much later when you grow up and try to identify yourself with a group or a community.

Mutashi taught us to read the Malayalam alphabet in our early teens; I remember it was a small little book called ‘Learn Malayalam in 30 days’. Luckily, the lessons stuck for some time as I looked at cinema posters, bus routes and magazines but the script may have faded from my mind if not for the cable revolution that swept our lives in the mid-90s.

Tough to imagine there was a world when there was just one TV channel – our good old Doordarshan where the only strains of regional language used to be in the form of the regional movie that would play every Sunday afternoon, after the news for the hearing impaired. The movie shown may have left a lot to be desired but still that was probably the only time when Indians watched other language movies faithfully. Of course those in Palakkad would recollect watching Tamil more on TV because DD-Kodaikanal was clearer than DD-Malayalam.

It was the 1996 Cricket World Cup and we finally welcomed cable TV into our lives. The World Cup went but along with it, it also brought Asianet into our lives- our first glimpse of Malayalam viewing outside Kerala. Suddenly, there was a quantum leap in our exposure to Malayalam with a host of TV serials and movies occupying our drawing rooms and ensuring that the diaspora could now live outside the state but still be tuned to it. Cinema and literature are the most popular forms of expression of language and so would you be surprised by the changes that a vernacular TV channel brought into one’s lives?

Mohan Lal, Mammootty and Yesudas were undoubtedly the icons who now connected us to our language. But I recollect that the person who caused me to be enthralled with cinema and especially Malayalam cinema was Sibi Malayil. Imagine as a first time viewer, when you are exposed to Bharatham, Kireedam, Sadayam, Thaniya Varthanam, Dasharatham and His Highness Abdullah in less than a span of a month – intense, powerful language of cinema which hooked me to the medium. Of course there were also many others like Padmarajan, Hariharan, Bharathan, Sathyan Anthikkad, MT etc. who slowly but surely converted me into a Keralophile.

It helped that as an engineering student in Coimbatore, there were so many students from Kerala and so the language blossomed and it eventually replaced Hindi as my second language of communication. Regular trips down South ensured that there was a more constant flow of the language from more quarters and not parents alone (Funnily, my interaction with Achchan and Prashant veered towards more English at the same time) ensuring that despite being in Bombay, I could still breathe the language.

Our marriage increased the Malayalam quotient in my language tremendously (interacting in Malayalam on the phone with her for the 9 month period between fixing the marriage and the marriage was a challenge to my language skills but I survived!!!) but I still had not breached the literature frontier. I had earlier tried reading English translations of Malayalam novels – The Demon Seed (Asuravithu), The Legends of Khasak (Khasakkinte Itihasam), Kesavan’s Lamentations (Kesavante Vilapangal) but to be honest, I think it was more of a deliberate attempt to relate to one’s culture and not the literature. Translations are important but when you are well aware of the milieu and the culture, they can be jarring and out of place. When you anglicize the Nair tharavadu, the visual appeal falls flat, especially for someone who understands the backdrop and the language of the place.

Two works of art suddenly pushed me into attempting to read Malayalam – reading Basheer’s The Walls and watching Renjith’s Pranchiyettan and the Saint. The simplicity of The Walls was spell binding and as I imagined Mammootty speaking in the film as I read, I wondered whether I was missing out on the beauty of the original language by shying away from reading it in its original form. The thought lingered within me; at the same time, we watched Pranchiyettan and I loved the dripping humour in the script, which would have worked only in its original language and Trichur dialect and translation could never have done justice to it.

And so after due consultation, I ordered a few Malayalam books online, primarily by MT and Basheer and a set of short stories by Padmarajan. My maiden attempt was Aparan by Padmarajan and it was a total failure - the 3 page long story took an incredibly long amount of time and for all that effort, I was not even able to fathom half of what I read. I guess I was jumping the gun, so I stepped back and approached Basheer's Mathilukal, a far more easier but nevertheless enriching exercise. The starting trouble had been overcome even if the pace was quite slack.

Short stories and novellas by MT and Basheer (strongly recommended to first timers to try Basheer and never O V Vijayan initially) followed till I finally had the confidence to read a full-fledged novel, MTs Naalukettu – a look at the changing (crumbling) world of the matriarchal Nair tharavadu. Of course, wifey dear is there to constantly help me in understanding the language and helping whenever I am stuck – you need someone to help out frequently at least initially.

There are a few more books now adorned on my shelf waiting to be read as I alternate between English and Malayalam. It is a nice little pleasure to suddenly discover one’s own language and make up for years of neglect of the same. But it is not an easy experience – you need patience to waft through the material word by word, the reading pace is pretty slow, the language bounces above the head on many an occasion and you need help when you are stuck but it is an enriching feeling nevertheless.

Books are fairly affordable in Kerala and you get translations of several unknown Latican American and African writers in small bookshops (Is there any surprise that someone like Marquez is so popular in Kerala?). A book in Malayalam which costs about Rs 100 costs about 300+ in its English translation. In Bombay and most cities, there are big air-conditioned bookstores, where you can browse books and buy videos, have coffee and spend ample time practically buying nothing; the books here sell at prices five to six times what a book in Kerala costs.

It is important that you should value your mother tongue but I don’t want to sound parochial and say down with the others. Let’s not blame anyone and insist that parents and relatives must speak in their language only so that the language does not perish; after all, the primary motive of a language is to communicate so you cannot insist on speaking a language at the cost of clarity of thought. Practically, an English medium education puts us at an advantage and it would be foolish to discard the advantage that it bestows in our work lives but equally, it would be wonderful if we do not neglect our languages.

I find a more cultural binding with my language rather than with my religion; it would be a pity if I had to sacrifice it for the sake of convenience. It helps in deriving some sort of an identity for an urban Indian who struggles to find his roots as he is displaced from what he calls his own..