On Malayalam and Melancholia


Yasmin Nair over at her website [h/t: Doug Henwood]:

When asked by anyone, Where are you from, in India? my response is always, “My parents are from Kerala, but I’m from Calcutta.” It’s not a response that would have been welcomed when I was actually growing up in India, when where you were from was determined by your parents’ birthplace. In the Northeast of India, Malayalis or Keralites (there is some sort of distinction, but I’ll leave it to better minds to parse that out) were lumped together with all the rest of the “southies,” including people from southern states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.

I was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and then wandered through Kathmandu, Bombay (now Mumbai), and back to Cal. I’ve spent very little actual time in Kerala, although both my parents’ families as well as my extended family are inextricably woven into its history and politics. I know of some of that lineage, but a very particular family history has meant it being occluded or veiled in ways that I may or may not grapple with.

My relationship to Malayalam falls within that particular and peculiar history. In a country like India, where millions are perforce inter-lingual, negotiating several different languages, sometimes simultaneously, the presence of languages is carefully calibrated. There is one’s “mother tongue,” which is what Malayalam is to me, and there is one’s “first” language, which is what English has always been to me. Then, if you went to the kind of educational institution I attended, there’s a “second language,” Hindi, in my case (English is the official language of India) and, upto a certain point in your education, a “third” language, the language of the state you reside in; you’re required to learn all of these.

For some, a “mother” and “first” language are the same, but for me, Malayalam has always been hard. I have distant but painful memories of being taught the script, which is beautiful, at a very young age, long before I began kindergarten, and failing miserably. Or, perhaps, simply performing the way any pre-schooler might, but still being made to feel the stinging thwack of a wooden ruler on my bare thighs. I hated it and to this day have no desire to learn it.

I spoke it haltingly, even at home, where we spoke in various combinations of Malayalam, English, Nepali, Hindi, Marathi, and Bengali, depending on where we were. I couldn’t or, rather, wouldn’t write or read it, my truculence hardened by those early memories as well as a desire to escape.

I can’t understand everything these people are saying to each other, but enough to gather that it’s a fairly typical conversation amongst two people who know each other well. I listen to the sound of Malayalam and it occurs to me, as it always has, that Malayalam is a profoundly melancholy language.

More here.