Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Language between You and Me- To My Children 1

Sometimes when I sit to write I feel this enormous fear raising its head in my mind. It lingers on there like the shadow of a tree, which is seen at the other end of my childhood memories; against the brick walls that run along the length of the land, this tree stands waving its foliage as if it were caught by the same kind of fear that as a child I felt while looking at it from the dimly lit verandah of my home.

I feel this fear especially when I think that you would know very little about me as your friend, father and companion; you would not be able to understand me as a person who also had a childhood, youth, dreams, fears, anxieties, frustrations, passions, trusts, betrayals and above all memories. You would not know about all those intimate things that had been haunting me, traveling with me all these years unless I write about them to you.

Generally the legacy of the parents is conveyed to children orally. Often children speak the same language that their parents speak. When there is no disparity of language between parents and children, legacies are passed on within the same ambience created by the linguistic unity. When parents speak different languages and the children speak one common language, which neither the language of the father nor of the mother, the children come to have a third language as their mother tongue. And this mother tongue is provided by the ‘location’ in which the children find themselves growing up.

This must be the case of many parents. Location makes a lot of difference even if the parents speak the same language. As they grow up, children pick up the dominant language of the location and mold their ways/life through that. Children of Indian parents (even if both of them are from the same linguistic group), born and brought up in the US pick up American English as their language. Even if their ‘mother tongue’ is notionally any Indian language, practically their mother tongue would be ‘American English’. This cannot be wished aside. Language remains to be a barrier as well as a machine that removes all barriers.

When people ask me, do I teach you Malayalam, I say, I don’t. They question me why I don’t do that. I tell them that I am married to a woman whose mother tongue is Marathi and her practical mother tongue is Hindi and her professional language is English. And my notional mother tongue is Malayalam and thanks to the location where I live, my practical language is Hindi (though I don’t speak it very well) and my professional language is English.

During my college days, when I met my future wife, had I opted to speak to her in Hindi only or had I insisted that she learned Malayalam to become my life partner and had we decided to speak in one common language, as our children you could have picked up one language, either Malayalam or Hindi, as your mother tongue. But remember, we were studying in Baroda where the official language was Gujarati. We were not forced to speak in Gujarati but we were supposed to know Gujarati, at least to do some basic bargaining with the local vendors. Perhaps, Gujaratis were/are not too parochial and they never insisted that we should speak in Gujarati to live in Gujarat. By now you must know, many people who go to Bengal to study or work pick up Bengali quite fast. I don’t say that Bengalis are very parochial and they don’t speak to you in any other language than Bengali.

Bengalis take a lot of pride in their language and Bengali is the dominant medium of education. Bengal has a very strong cultural history and to be part of it and to be one with the Bengali life, one definitely needs to learn Bengali language. At times I think that Bengali is one language in India that anyone could learn very deeply (so deeply that you understand the culture of the land so well) within one year or less than one year. I also believe that Bengali language has a special rhythm that helps the people to learn it fast. Besides, I think that Bengali is a very easy language. Whatever be the case, people who live in Bengal for more than two months, they start speaking Bengali language.

May be any language is like that. I have a few friends who dropped out from school. They went to different places including Mumbai and Gulf countries. Some even migrated to the United Kingdom. When I visited my village with my wife, your mother, they came around to meet me (I think, more than that they wanted to see her and come to a conclusion about my choice), once they came to know that she did not speak Malayalam and spoke Hindi, they all spoke to her in Hindi very easily, that too to my dismay because I was not able to speak in that fluent Hindi even after spending a few years in the North. The dislocation of those boys had helped them to learn different language. Had they been to Spain, I am sure they would have spoken Spanish too.

Then, why didn’t I speak or learn Hindi or Marathi or Gujarati? Or in that case, why didn’t your mother speak or learn Marathi or Malayalam or Hindi? Why we opted to speak only in English? Was that a part of our snobbery? Or were we trying to impress each other with English? Or did we consider speaking in a regional language made us lesser mortals? Obviously, I wouldn’t have spoken to her in Malayalam nor she in Marathi to me. In India, as you know, speaking in any South Indian language generates some sort of curiosity and scorn amongst the listeners. Any language that doesn’t have Sanskrit/Aryan roots/origin is not treated well in this country. Both South India and North East India face this linguistic status in the general discourse of our national life. Anyway, I will talk to you more about this some other time. What I want to tell you is this, even in my profession, a person having a clear regional language affinity is not treated as equal to the ones who speak only in ‘English’. Knowing ones own language is a big problem in this country.

Still, why I did not make you or force you to learn Malayalam, which is my mother tongue or Marathi, which is your mother’s mother tongue. The reason lies not in the false belief that knowing a regional language would make you less attractive in future or you will have lesser chances in the job market or professional market, where you will have to actually sell your talents. The reason lies in our own firm stance on giving complete freedom to each other. I did not insist her to learn Malayalam because we believed that erasing one’s own tongue and inscribing with another language is a sort of violence. I am not sure even after taking this very conscious decision whether we were less violent in our relationship or not. That is another matter. Also we believed that forcing another language was ideological and anything ideological would have negative implications in our life. So we decided to speak in English even in our future life. English is our professional language not a personal one, hence slowly we started using fifty per cent English and fifty per cent Hindi at home. You cannot get much personal with your professional language.

During those years of linguistic choice, discussion and resolution (all of which happened quite violently and organically. Anything organic has an embedded violence and anything violent has organic manifestations) we were not thinking about both of you. We were thinking of living a life of difference or a life with some difference or a life that is different altogether from that of others. Youthful days are like that; whatever you think looks fresh and radical at that stage. Your silly sentiments look colossal tragedies to yourself. Your petty happiness looks great comedies. You find life taking the shape of a carnival and you don’t understand a thing about the theoretical notions of carnival. Still you believe that you could change the world and bring change unto yourself.

Finally, you happened. First, you my son and after five years, you, my daughter. People were still asking why we did not teach them our mother tongues. If not both, at least one; none told us to teach the kids Marathi, which is your mother’s tongue. Everyone told us to teach you Malayalam. It is like that. Father’s language is the dominant language and you call it mother tongue. Isn’t it weird? If I insist that you both learn Malayalam, I would be moving away from my declaration of faith/trust on linguistic issues (though I have moved away from trust and faith in the marital sphere, quite a few times, which I would recount later, with necessary glossing over) within the marital sphere. Even if I had insisted that our children my language, it would have ended up in sheer violence and bloodbath. Language creates wars both in public and private realms. When a country is divided on religious lines language is not affected considerably. But when a family is divided linguistically, even religion could be affected drastically.

Hence, we stuck to our own policy of keeping you illiterate on our mother tongues. And we found a solid reason also for that. You grew up without grandparents. Your mother’s parents passed away when you were just infants. You, my daughter, have not even seen them. My father passed away when I was just fifteen years old. I grew up almost alone, rebellious, frustrated and sad. Happiness came to me when I went to college. I felt I was a grown up man. My mother too remained sad for a long time. She became happy when my sister was married off and settled. She again grew sad thinking about all what was negative in the world. When you think too many negative things, they start appearing in your life. So think positively.

My mother came when you, my son, were born. She stayed for a while and the climate in Delhi was not treating her well. I should say that she was not treating the weather with some amount of clemency. She was fighting with the weather. The moment you fight with it, it would start attacking you. You should always the weather to weather you; you become weather coated slowly. When my mother came to see you, it was too hot here. You were born in May and you know the North Indian heat could prove a great irritant for a South Indian woman, especially when she is very irritable. She left after a month and never came back to stay with us. She also started insisting that you guys speak Malayalam. You speaking in Malayalam could have been possible had my mother stayed with us and spoken to you in Malayalam. That too did not happen.

You may consider that you were deprived of having one more language or a couple of languages. The deprivation came from us, your parents. But don’t feel bad. We also thought that forcing you to learn a few languages would be too much for you and we did not want to put any additional burden on you. Today, you, my son, can speak Hindi and English and we consider Hindi as your first language and I am sure that in the coming days you will get more accustomed to English and that would be your first language soon. May be like any other parents, we too want you to speak in English, the global language, the language of future and the language with a future. It could take you to places. And you, my daughter, you have not yet even started calling me ‘papa’ and your mother, ‘mama’. But I know sooner than later you will be speaking in English than in Hindi because you have a model in your brother to emulate and by the time you start speaking, he will have gained the abilities to speak in fluent English.

So here we are; a father, mother and two kids, conjoined by love and separated by language. May be we are joined by the languages, Hindi and English and one day I am sure you are going to ask me what my language is and what is the language of your mother. It is quite natural. You, my son, have already started asking me about the nuances of Malayalam as I catch up with some Malayalam television channels. You have some information that your mom’s mother tongue is Marathi. May be your schooling is such that the teachers there ask you specific questions and you give specific answers and you learn those specific answers as the guiding principles of your life.

In literature and cinema, I have seen those kids who are deprived of their parents’ language undertaking journeys meant digging up their cultural and linguistic roots. From far and remote shores, they start searching their ancestors and their languages. There is too much of optimism in such imaginations though it happens in real life too. But how can I expect you to come back and look for my language. That’s where my fear lies. I am afraid that you would never know your father and his intimate feelings, the circumstances in which he grew up, the locations that changed him, the incidents that proved his mettle as a professional. I don’t want you people to be left in total darkness about my childhood. That’s why when I think about you and your future I feel this perennial fear of doing injustice to you. But I think more than the fear of injustice, I am led by the fear of being missed out, of being excluded from your life, your imaginations and your cultural make up. May be I am being too ambitious here by forcing my past on to you. However, I feel that it is important to speak those intimate things to you.

I am afraid of being misunderstood too. I write a lot of things in Malayalam. I am appreciated by my Malayali readers. I write a lot of things in English too. I am appreciated and lauded by English readers also. What I write in Malayalam cannot be received in the same fashion by my English readers even if I translate all of my writings into English. The same way, I cannot give the same effect of English writings to My Malayali readers as translations always miss out that something, which is called the ‘life essence of language’. I am saying this with some sort of right because I enjoy translating literature from English to Malayalam. And I know that many a literature that comes in English belong to other language, which are adequately translated in English for the global readers. These English translations are efficient ones and they give the impression that they could be better than the original ones. But as we are not reading the original and the translation side by side, we cannot make the final judgment. When I translate the already translated, I know how much I struggle to convey the original feelings.

One day, when you read these words and try to figure out what I am trying to tell you, you may wonder why I made an effort to write all these! I have an answer. Considering the present scenario of the linguistic choices that you have and have been given, I don’t think you would even have a chance to read me in Malayalam. So you would be reading me in English. And who knows you want to read my writings at all! You may become someone who does not have anything to do with art or literature. You may become someone who does not require read my works at all. Then there would this curiosity for knowing one’s father. That could be the only reason, which could attract you to my writings. You would never get a chance to know me closely even if you read all my art criticism in English. You would deduce that your father was an aggressive writer who never minced words. His art criticism was done in good faith but was taken differently by many. You will think that your father was a much maligned monster who did only art criticism and wrote a few pieces outside his disciple in his blog.

That would be terrible for me, not only as a writer but also as a father. I want you to know me a bit better, a bit closer and with a bit more kindness that I deserve not only as a father but also as a writer. So I make this attempt to reveal myself, my intimate fears, dreams, hopes, aspirations, sorrows, joys, passions and so on. I have expressed a few things about myself in some of my Malayalam writings (a few of which are still in manuscript form when I write this), which I am sure you will not be able to read. Hence, I want to tell you about myself. You may visualize me, in these writings, not as your father, but as someone who were aspiring to be your father one day, even without knowing about it. I am very happy to have you as my children. I believe by now that you have always been in my dream and hopes, and you took your avatar in order to alleviate me from my false fears. In Sanskrit, putra and putri means someone who alleviates the father from the hell called ‘pum’. You have finally arrived and I am here to tell you about my heavens and hells.

I go back to my home, where darkness lingered all the time. And the darkness was not negative. I understood this darkness as the play of lights coming from different sources. And I was afraid of darkness all the time. During those days I intensely wished that my world be filled with light and more light. And as you know, the day I wished for more light, my life changed; changed for sure. Soon I will recount those stories for you.


usha ramachandran said...

For your children Johny?You may never know they both may learn malayalam and marathi on their own,without you having to bother teaching them.:).Today's children are very smart.Language...comes from the heart.I, an 'army child'know very little malayalm.but can just about read and write to communicate.My children though brought up in TVM cant read or write their mother tongue...daughter later learn t
on her on.They are Kendriya vidyalaya products :).Hope your kids will learn both their father -tongue and mother -tongue as they grow.That they will visit their father's village and have fun.:).Good luck.

Monika said...

I am sure this would interest most of the parents as I guess this is the kind of feeling/fear we all experience at some point or the other, though the intensity may differ.

In our efforts to make all things rosy and comfortable for our children, we at times portray an image of ourselves which is quite contrary to what we are... and most of the times it's at a subconscious level ... which slowly gets revealed to us and we get conscious and alarmed.

It's not like we don't want to reveal our true selves to our kids but to make them know and understand anything, requires time and effort and thus I am quite glad that at least one of us, YOU made an effort to write down what you felt ... it is really difficult to put in words what one experiences at such a personal level, and there's nothing like it when others can also relate to it but then you are a very proficient writer! :)

From my personal observation/experience, I have realized that grand parents do play a very important role in making children know their parents better; not only the children get familiar with their native language but also come to know a lot about their parents childhood from them which otherwise we would not be interested or having the time to tell them.

I also believe that we all do have a certain curiosity to know more about our parents ... maybe our generation was more curious because of lack of entertainment options and abundance of natural sources of entertainment like elderly relatives and their fables and stories but that doesn't mean the present generation isn't.
We need to develop that curiosity in them because as kids even though they'll be more than happy to hear about what their parents were like as kids but they won't be naturally curious as imagining their parents as kids isn't routine for them.
Moreover, even if they become aware they'll be more interested in knowing what their parents did at the age that they are.

And its natural, thats why they are kids ... they need to think less and do more. Thats the essence of being a kid ... you are naturally carefree under normal circumstances and it's not even a good idea to trouble/load them with whatever our past was, good or bad.

Because, there would come a stage in their lives when maybe they themselves become parents and experience the exact same feelings ... that they would like/want to know about what their parents felt and what were the experiences that made them, them!!

And, a few lucky ones whose parents are still around .. do get their answers!!! :)

waswo x. waswo said...

I read this with great interest Johny, not just because I am a brain-dead monolingual American who stands in awe of the ability to speak three or four languages, but because the whole concept of what you are now beginning...writing a long letter to your dear to my heart. I've begun some similar efforts though haven't gotten very far. You may find that odd, since I am childless, but it is possible to have children even if it is not in the biological sense. In my heart I have many children. There are young people who I know love and respect me, and I love them deeply as my adopted kids. So the same feelings come to me of wanting to explain myself to them, to share if not confess, to write from my own experience and maybe let them see the world from a new angle which is the angle of my own eyes and brain. Anyway, thanks for inspiring.

LotusEater said...

Hi J


When my father died, one of his friends told me - and i am sure he was quoting a sentence about someone else, but he thought it appropriate about my dad - he said "its like a huge library has burnt down".

Years later when we had our son i thought when he grows up i should get him to understand something about his dad's childhood,and also chronicle his own childhood with photographs and stuff, so that it would be easier for him to tell his own children.
Sid was diagnosed with autism 5 years ago... but we have not let up on our part of the deal!

all the best!

layered said...

Hi Johny,

At least your readers are able to know you from this great piece of writing :)
As a language conscious mother ( a Bengali!)I immensely enjoyed it.
Well, I too had the same fear as my child was to be brought up in Mumbai with no possibility to learn mother! tongue ( as the father was oblivious to such nuance of learning the roots through stories/ poems/literature.
I did make my effort to make the torture of imposing the extra burden easier by teaching my son his first letters of English and Bengali phonetically... meaning without the order - just by the sound and picture of the both the language letter simultaneously (my brainchild!). You are right, in your piece about Bengali language pride ( there are a lot of exception though). The idea that my son won't be able to enjoy Sukumar Roy(Satyajit Ray's father, Tagore and innumerable other creations was absolutely unthinkable to me. Well, he is now much more comfortable in English mother tongue now, but at times I feel really glad that he sometimes picks up some Bengali books to enjoy few pages from my heap of English and Bengali books :)

Waiting to read your next....kudos!

anuragebooks said...

Hi Johny,

Very recently I have following your writings through your blog. First thing first that i thoroughly enjoy your writing and gets to understand a lot about life and art.

I am a product of a very 'regular' north indian bringing up with all middle class pressures. My father who always maintained a distance from me and in the process distanced him from me wrote 47 letters to me when i entered college (probably he was waiting for physical distancing to happen) explaining decisions he took, decisions he couldnt, i cherished all of them and your article just took me back to them. They are all still kept safely in my book shelf. I guess as a father it takes lot of courage and sensitivity to come out and bare your soul in front of your children. Me being a father now, i might start acquiring that courage.

Hope your children will cherish your writings irrespective of langauge and in process will learn a great deal about their parents.

Good Luck.. and Keep Writing.

joicy said...

I read it as a very nuanced and reflective letter to oneself.
All the best

sandhya said...

I am not yet a parent but yes a wife now. Being a wife means I too have started to live life like how my mother and father started living one day. Life is coming full circle and I am walking on their foot steps now. Soon I too will have a kid of my own and life will come at an interesting juncture where I will go through the same emotional physical rollercoaster ride as what my parents went through for me. I find this life cycle as a great metaphor. I understand my parents, my parents in laws, and even other relationships much better each day as I live my life as a wife and as I imagine myself to be a mother someday. Here I am speaking more from the eyes of a child understanding my parents fears and joys in their life for themselves and for us. I don’t know how much my parents speaking a common language and I speaking the same language to my husband has played a role in this. Mother tongue as a family language could only have been ‘one’ of the means in the journey.
A great piece of writing Johny !! Through not directly I could see layers of my parent’s emotions in your writing while they were bringing me up.

JohnyML said...

@ Usha....thanks Usha..I hope one day they would do it without pressures..

@ Monika..thanks dear..

@ Waswo...of course, children are from heaven and they are everybody's...that endorses your writing..

@ Lotus Eater...what to say my friend..I understand ....we all will shower love on him to make him stand on his own..

@ Anurag...all fathers must be writing letters to their kids...everyday..every night..every moment..I appreciate that you told me about your dad's letters.

@ Sandhya..thanks dear...