On one of our vacations back home, in Kerala, a family of six came visiting. Husband, wife, two sons who were on holiday from the US and the grandparents who were settled in Bombay. They had come to make the once-in-two years trip to Kerala and to the family temple. The two boys who were around ten and five spoke only in English. The grandmother spoke no English and I could see the sadness in her eyes as she tried to communicate to her only grandchildren through gestures and a few English words she had picked up. I don’t know whether it was my feeling, and I am not being judgmental here, but I could sense both discomfort and disconnect. And yes, I felt sad.

Should the parents of the children have taught them Tamizh? Or should the grandmother have made an effort to learn English? Like I said earlier, I am no one to pass judgment but the grandmother’s look of helplessness is something I will never forget.

That’s when I thought of what had been instilled in us since childhood. The mother tongue… the language you learnt on your mother’s lap… what you spoke at home and the language you felt… even after many tongues took precedence at various stages in life. I cannot for my life imagine translating what my mother-in-law sang in Tamizh to Amrit as a little baby, or explain the feeling what the strange mix of Malayalam and Tamizh evokes in me when I hear it in any part of the world. For it’s my thai mozhi, my mother tongue, that’s an intrinsic part of who I am.

We studied in a strict old-school convent where if you spoke in any other language other than English, you were fined. But we went home to Tamizh and Malayalam, and where talking in English with cousins was frowned upon. Between Lionel Richie, Yesudas, Skandashasti Kavacham (devotional chants), Subramania Bharati (a famed Tamizh poet) and Binaca Geetmala, I can safely say I imbibed the best of many worlds.

When Amrit started speaking, there was a clamour from some of our acquaintances to teach him English. But we were adamant that he learn Tamizh first and he would anyway pick up English from school, which he did in less than two weeks. So the boy can now speak Tamizh, English and a smattering of Malayalam and Hindi. But yes, the major tone of conversation at home is Tamizh. So that he can easily converse with all the elders back home without making them feel out of place among his generation.

What I really don’t get is the derision. That total non-acceptance of where you come from… “Oh, we don’t live in India any longer. And ______ (insert name of any South Indian language) is so difficult for the kids to pick up. They will get so confused!”

 All I can then do is to go back in time to a little two-year-old called Tutul who came to stay in the house next to ours in Cochin. The family was from a remote village in West Bengal and knew only Bengali. In 10 days, Tutul learnt to speak fluent Malayalam from the kids in the compound.

At the workplace, though we all converse in English, it’s not uncommon to hear a variety of languages being spoken at times – Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Gujarati and even Tamizh! And to hear the strains of another language, even the one you don’t understand a word of is heartening. It simply means the thai mozhi or the mother tongue is well and truly alive!

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3 thoughts on “The mother tongue

  1. I feel sad for that grandma reading this itself and you witnessed it…how I really wish I could teach my kids to talk in Marwari or Hindi too.

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