Friday, February 5, 2010

Confessions of an Alienated Malayalee

(This is a post from my pareltank blog.I wrote a poem more than 3 decades ago which i have hesitated to post on account of the venom it has. This post explains why it is so venomous.I still haven't decided whether to post it or not)

yes. that’s me. I call myself that ’cos of my indifferent competence in my mother tongue. I think in Malayalam, but have no confidence to write in that language. I sometimes think if I could write in the language I think and feel in, I’d become the Shakespeare of Malayalam literature. Don’t laugh. this is how I console myself when I fall into one of those fits of depression at my inability express myself comprehensively – thoughts, feeling s and their nuances. The English language does not have corresponding terms to express malayalee feeling. Or, I am not competent enough in this angrezi tongue. So there is a huge gap between my sensibilities and the only language I can write in. Frustrating, isn’t it?

How did this happen? it’s a long story. I was born less than ten years after Independence. So guess I can call myself post independence generation. Those were days when people believed that future belonged to people who received education in English. I was a victim of that false notion. But, I did have Malayalam as a subject till 4th standard. But the Malayalam teacher took a dislike to me for a reason I don’t want to go into here(I have written a poem on that – so intense was my resentment towards that teacher who alienated me from myself). Unfortunately, along with me, that teacher was also promoted to the middle school. As soon as this news was confirmed, I went home and wept and wept till my mother agreed to switch my second language to French! With that, my connections with Malayalam text books, therefore literary Malayalam, were severed forever and ever.

Thus it is that my imagination was shaped completely by the angrezi language. They say if you learn a language, you tend to identify yourself wiith the culture of native speakers of that language. So my childhood imagination was filled with Jack and Jill, Polly putting the kettle on (I used to go around our kitchen looking for the kettle I saw in illustrated nursery rhyme books- found none), sixpence and pocket full of rye (thought that rye was the higher denomination of sixpence). Must say I used to be fascinated that the English could bake blackbirds in a pie and still keep them alive. Fortunately for me, I had a lot of neighbours, cousins from whom I picked up kakey, kaket, koodevidey?, Omana kuttan, govindan, ayyappandey amma, neyyappam chuttu. I sang these with full throated ease and felt I belonged. But when I sang the English rhymes, my imagination got activated and made me yearn for things I knew nothing of. Like they say, unheard melodies are sweeter. As I reached primary school, Enid Blyton was my staple food. and also all those comics – Three Stooges, Totem, Tin Tin, Classics, Richie Rich, Little Lotta - - - - . my horizons widened and without my quite knowing it, I moved away from my roots into a world I had never experienced. Along with it, an attitudinal change crept into me – a feeling of superiority over those who didn’t know the Famous Five and Captain Haddock!!

Soon, I started reading romances. Mills and Boons told me how the westerners fell in love, how hostility was an imperative prelude to love! How men had to be dark and tall ( I didn’t know then that, that dark was not our dark), that when men fell in love, they snapped at their lady loves for no reason. But i didn't know how people in love behaved in my culture! I soon got tired of Mills and Boons but Georgette Heyer remained my favourite for a long time. How she fired my imagination! her novels transported to a still more remote world - the Regency period, Victorian age - - -and I moved with wide eyed wonder among powder and patch, frills and gloves, lords and ladies and fops - --- Humour so pervaded her narration that I fell in love with the English language! My alienation from my own language was complete.

My estrangement from the imaginative world represented by Malayalam literature is the saddest thing that has happened to me. As I grew older, I moved into the world of English classics and poems. The breathtakingly beautiful paddy fields of Kerala skirted by beckoning coconut trees made me search for Wordsworthian terms to describe them. No muse works that way and the poet in me died. So did whatever creativity I had. Now I realize that one can create only in the language one thinks in, feels in - in the language that shapes one’s day to day life. I was trapped between two worlds – and was not resourceful enough to find a way out of this trap.

Today, I feel like a half baked creature. I fully realized what I lost when I got my first employment in a college in mid Travancore. my colleagues seemed to be at home with such a rich literature and culture. Jokes had to be explained to me and I didn’t find them funny. The humour was lost in the translation. Philosophical ruminations in Malayalam seemed part of the daily diet of my English department. And my colleagues felt guilty when they saw me trying to pretend I understood. Fortunately for me, my spoken Malayalam was extremely good. so I belonged as long as the conversation did not move into higher planes. But it did. too often. That is when I wrote that vitriolic poem about my Malayalam teacher who was instrumental in uprooting me even as I remained physically rooted.


Anjuli said...

This is such a wonderfully transparent piece. You have shown your ability to let us 'see' what you struggle with- you are at ease with the words and help us to feel your frustrations.

The teacher you spoke of did a great injustice. The system at the time probably also served to further the wrong done. Have said that; I would love to know you attempted to write something in Malayalam - even if just to practice.

It would be great for you to feel the words roll off your pen- even if the words ended up not sounded the way you want them to sound- but I'm thinking this talent you have- this lovely ability to craft words together will translate into whatever language you use...the words are simply the tools and you are the artist.

Balachandran V said...

Belonging to the same generation as yours and like you, reading more in English than Malayalam, I can empathize. What I have felt terrible about is another similar issue. The horrible affectation that we have- the mixing of two languages when we speak. I have very consciously tried to stick to Malayalam but after a sentence or two I would slip in an English phrase or word. I would feel so ashamed.

But I haven't found it difficult to write in Malayalam. I don't know why you should feel "I sometimes think if I could write in the language I think and feel in, I’d become the Shakespeare of Malayalam literature." Wouldn't it be possible to write 'the way you feel and think?'

I used to say 'our bastard culture'. The way we have submitted ourselves to a foreign tongue to such an extent that we cannot even think in our mother tongue! Like, if I am excited about something, I would slip into English! Which means that it is natural for me now to think in English too. I am aghast! But then, I stopped this conflict within me. I thought, 'what is a language after all, why be parochial about it, be comfortable the way you are', and then I was at peace with myself, about this issue.

Now when I read beautiful Malayalam literature, I have the tinge of regret that I cannot express myself in my mother tongue as I do in English. Like you said, 'a half-baked creature'. I don't express myself that good in English either. Where does that leave me? Nowhere!!

Well, KPJ, it is not too late, is it? One can still read Malayalam and appreciate most, if not all of it. One should be happy with that!

Yesterday I had been to a function - Prof. Guptan Nair Foundation award to great teachers - this year to Prof. B Hridaykumari teacher. I have never heard better English than from Teacher. As she was speaking yesterday in chaste Malayalam, she happened to talk about the state of education in Kerala. Suddenly she unconsciously switched to English and from the mouth of that frail woman came words that blew flames! She apologized for slipping into English from time to time- said, 'forgive a lifetime of teaching English'!

Kush said...

Well, the past only begins to speak when it is past! I quite think that it learns after us.

I too used to be full of resentment towards a few teachers and such I had had early in life.

That until I began to write...which put everything in a different light. In many ways, our past is a result of what we become in the future.

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Hi! Visited your blog via KTR's.

Enjoyed reading this post about an issue that is true for many of us, who speak multiple languages and live in many worlds. Not being able to read the literature in one's mother tongue must be a huge disconnect. But there is also so much to learn outside books. Every person we meet is possibly an intricate story. And most of them remain forever unread.

Haddock said...

Some changes are for good.

soulsearchingdays said...

Hi, I am grateful to this virtual world which makes me stumble upon treasure troves of writings with which one can identify and feel at home. I fully identify with this post of yours , I am a malayali born and brought up in Delhi but fortunately I had the good fortune to have studied in a school where we were taught Malayalam till 8th standard, but most of us chewed lika chewing gum to be thrown out after the final exams of 8th std. got over. However since I stayed in kerala in my formative years 2 to 5 i had started reading balarama and poombatta at a young age which made me develop an affinity and liking towards the language. Just like you though I write in English I so much want to write in Malayalam, I had won many essay competitions in my school but could not go further from there. It pains me to see the lack of interest in my 8 year old to learn her mother tongue but yes I think I would write in Malayalam some day. Sorry for using your space for a post in itself but you are fabulous, I am blessed to have met you here, your poems are so true to heart, I am going to spend some time here and read to hearts content. Nice meeting you!!

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

@ soul speaks
many many thanks for the encouragement.happy that you share my anxieties.