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Breaking the babel

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar  

In 2017, I became a grandmother in London and was getting used to the ways of that city. With great amusement and joy, I watched the way the U.K. was welcoming a new citizen. A health visitor would come to my daughter’s home regularly to check her mental and physical health and the well-being of the baby.

Soon, I started talking to that friendly British woman on her visits. “This grandson of yours is going to grow up in London. So don’t try to teach him English but speak to him in your Indian language,” she said.

How on earth am I going to convey to that smiling white woman that we don’t talk one single Indian language but many.

Diverse tongues

My home is a mini-India, and we believe in unity in diversity when it comes to languages. It all began some 77 years ago, when my mother and father married. She was a teenager who had never set foot outside Tamil Nadu. He was from Palakkad in Kerala. Palakkad Tamil had a different intonation and was more Malayalam than Tamil.

You can very well imagine the plight of my mother who travelled to Alappuzha, a coastal town in Kerala, to be surrounded by people who spoke a strange tongue. Over the years, she mastered Malayalam and my father learned to read and write Tamil.

Our family’s all-time jokes originate from the linguistic blunders of its members. As most of my father’s sisters also married from Tamil Nadu, they too went through days of adjusting to a new language.

One of my uncles asked for a jodithavala, meaning a big vessel usually used for bathing. But jodi meant two in Malayalam, and hence he was given two vessels, much to his chagrin.

Come summer, we would all go to our maternal grandmother’s house for the holidays. When my brother found the hot Salem weather a bit too much, he told her, “Patti, vesarthu mungarathu,” meaning he was sweating away to glory. But unfortunately, she heard it as “veshathe muzhungitten,” meaning he had consumed poison.

As years rolled by, we all became multilingual — English and Hindi we mastered in schools and colleges, while Tamil and Malayalam came naturally to us.

I married a Tamil and consciously shed my intonation and chose Tamil words carefully. By this time, my parents have mastered each other’s language to a great extent, but still my father, while bidding goodbye to my husband’s grandmother, said, “Naan erangattuma (shall I take leave)?” Erangattuma is a Tamil word meaning climbing down, and hence she looked at my six-feet-plus father wondering where had he climbed. I explained to her the problem, much to her amusement.

My daughter chose a Bengali and my son a Kannadiga as their soulmates.

I have learned that our languages and culture can be as different as they can be, but the care, love and respect we have for each other takes us to a higher level of understanding.

When our Kannadiga daughter-in-law’s family welcome us with “Banni, banni”, roughly translated to “come”, somebody from our family will ask why are they calling us “panni”, or pigs.

And I am still at a loss how to explain to that friendly Britisher that we have many Indian languages and not just one.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 8:19:04 PM |

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