The ‘so-called nostalgic’ among us wait for special days — when we dress up a particular way, eat certain foods and practice certain customs, and watch TV shows discussing our valuable culture. But isn’t that mistaking the wood for the trees? That is merely celebration of a certain culture. Real culture comprises of the thoughts and action and words we engage with every day. Language is said to reflect culture, the more evolved ones reflecting the sophistication, the simpler ones reflecting the pragmatism. The mother tongue is supposed to be our first language, spoken to us by our mothers as we surface out of baby babble.
My mother has always spoken to me in Malayalam and continues to do so. I remember my first day to nursery school distinctly. At age 3, it was the day I met two new languages. Our driver Laksha who took me to school was from Baluchistan and spoke a very rough Urdu-Hindi dialect while everyone at the nursery school spoke in English. Of course I didn’t understand a thing! The school went about their traditional manner of teaching ABCs and numbers hoping we’d pick up the language as time went on. I continued to happily speak in Malayalam while my patient, pretty teacher replied in English.
But with Laksha the interaction was so much more. He was garrulous in nature and insisted on having a conversation one way or the other. So I was keen to pick up words to communicate with him. A loving man but with considerable road rage. I specifically remember how I would be standing between the front seats while he drove. Anyone who cut Laksha’s way would receive some high decibel compliments. Parents with toddlers will know how words are collected like shiny pebbles. Once we were in the car with my father in the front beside Laksha and Amma seated behind with me. Some rash driver cut across and Laksha had to slam the brakes to prevent an accident. He kept his temper in check but at the right moment, out flew the quintessential Urdu cuss word from my tiny lips “C******!”
I still remember the horror on my dad’s face as he turned around to me. Our trip was cut short and Laksha had a earful from Achan. After that Laksha took trouble to explain to me that I was not to use such words “in company” and especially not in the company of my parents! And yes, he stopped swearing on the road, at least in my presence. At school things were different, I was incredibly slow with letters and words. They started to give us dictation for three-letter words. I never understood the concept of dictation. I’d sit with the class and when everyone scrambled to write so would I. But everyday I’d get a zero on five or a zero on ten. Only the denominator would change. Until one day I realized that they want me to write the word that the teacher was calling out. Oh that was it! Silly me complied and then the numerator changed too. 🙂
So those were my inauspicious beginnings with Hindi and English but having grown up in the Middle East, Malayalam was left where it was – at home. I was super comfortable watching Malayalam movies, listening to Malayalam songs but not to read, write or speak it in public. The few years I studied in Kerala did nothing to improve my Malayalam but did plenty to erode any confidence I might have had with regard to the language. Relentless teasing and mocking from schoolmates and teachers sent me swerving away from Malayalam towards Additional English and Hindi classes.
Fast forward to film school days where I was dreaming of making a feature film. Ardently wishing to make my first one in Malayalam since it was Malayalam cinema that made me love the movies first. I went ahead and wrote the screenplay in English. For years I had gotten familiar with shapes of Malayalam letters but never taken the effort to befriend them. And now all of a sudden, I want to type on a Malayalam keyboard? This wasn’t going to be easy. I had to start with Thara, Para….
That was ten years ago. To me culture is a set of shared values. Shared values that are constantly evolving and synergistic with a tendency to gather as much as give out. Much like layers that gather together to eventually become an entity by themselves. Much like our state and country that are actually a thousand multiplicities absorbed into our collective conscience. The synthesis of these influences with our contemporary practices is what our culture is today. In the purist tussle between the present and the past, there lives a tendency to view the past through a softer lens of nostalgia. Where the grass was greener, language was purer and the world was better. But is it true? Not always so. There are and will be precious elements of the past that one should treasure and possibly protect and preserve. But blocking out further influences and refusing to remain open turns culture into a weighty heirloom hanging heavy around the neck. The best reason to study and understand culture is to be sensitive to differences and embrace the diversity. Being cultured is being inclusive. Yes my Malayalam is of an “avial” nature, yes I write in “Manglish”. Yes I am a cultural hybrid. I may still be the outsider but I have found my own way to connect with the speakers of the language I inherited. And that for me is an honour.
(This article was first published in Times of India as part of its Malayalam Mission section)