As with most kids, my parents and grandmother had to resort to quite a few tricks to get me to eat my veggies when I was growing up. Though none went so far as to tell me that I would get mutant powers from the radioactive food(Calvin strip), there were quite a few outrageous attempts. One of them was to just blatantly say that a vegetable (koorkha; I still don’t know the English name for it) tastes like chicken. Of course, it doesn’t taste anything like chicken. It tastes like most tuber-like vegetables when made with masala/curry mix. But we bought it anyway, and kept trying to see if it was even vaguely chicken-like, and consequently ate somewhat more of this than most other vegetables. In fact, as retarded as this makes me seem, it was only 3 days ago that I finally decided that they were definitely lying.

“Culture clash” is a ridiculously over-exploited cliche with regards to the Indian psyche. It’s a favourite theme for just about every writer of “Indian Fiction in English” (the other one, of course, is colonialism and the Raj, so you can probably decide that it’s the whole deal), and “Indian English films” have the same obsession. Perhaps it was a reaction to this relentless torrent of media informing me that I was a confused and tortured soul, but I had pretty much decided that it’s Not That Big a Deal. Yes, there were lots of little “moments of confusion” as I grew up, but by this time, I had felt that I and most of the people that I grew up with more or less smoothly navigate our identities as Malayalees* who spend a great deal of time in “Western” skin. However, lately, I’m beginning to question that.

We use English in daily life almost exclusively not only because it’s the default medium (after all, we can’t speak the language that a lot of the people we have to deal with speak) but also because nearly all of the “input data” that we have comes to us in English: from text books for specific subjects to newspapers, blog posts, and all social media, as well as television and cinema. (You can argue that all this can be made “native” without much extra difficulty, and in fact it is in almost all other cultures, but the fact remains that at least now, most of this is most conveniently accessed in English.) It’s simply easier to “think” in English-avoiding the additional processing step of translating all of this data once we access it- and thus, inevitably, we do. (I do, and the only people I have asked do, but I will confess that I’m just assuming this here without any real statistical proof. Would anyone like to comment?) Obviously, this means that the natural “output” is also in English; it would require still more processing to translate, even if one is quite adept in both the languages. This effort is quite minimal in most cases, but it isn’t zero, which explains the cases of people like A who are very traditional(one might even say sheltered or naive or any number of stronger terms), who has only mallu friends(i.e. close ones; it’s almost impossible for most of us to end up in a situation with only mallu friends, unless they have some very strong biases), and talks only in mallu with them, but still ends up using whole phrases of English for any even moderately complicated concepts.

Now, I had understood all this a long time ago, and had mostly made peace with it. Whenever I am home, I speak in fairly “pure” Malayalam with parents, cousins, and most other people that I meet**. Of course, even when I speak “pure” Malayalam there is literally no way around using English for any technical or non-fundamental concept, because I simply don’t know the words for them, but I restrict them to simple nouns, not phrases. This is, however, changing, albeit slowly. I still talk only in Malayalam with my immediate family, but the number of borrowed words/phrases is increasing. Much more marked is the change with cousins, especially the ones from my generation. Even the ones who grew up here are now (deliberately or unconsciously) switching to English every now and then for whole sentences at a time. I’m not very concerned, but it is food for thought.

After a long period of discussion, debate and analysis on how-badly-do-I-want-it, what-am-I-going-to-do-with-it, why-do-I-need-it,  is-it-really-a-good-idea-buying-second-hand, and how-much-money-should-one-really-spend-on-things-like-this-anyway, I finally bought an iphone 3G. Or at least, my brother finally paid money to some guy on ebay so he can send him an iphone 3G. If all goes well, I should get it when he comes down for Christmas. If all doesn’t go well, I’ll end up listening to a whole bunch of I-told-you-sos.

One final anecdote: there are two main swimming pools (excluding the one in our school; I would have said 2 “public” pools, but they’re members-only, which really isn’t the same thing) in this town. One is fairly centrally located and in the Kottayam club premises, which also has lots of other facilities. The downside is that it is tiny, and inevitably overcrowded. The other is bigger and much more serene, but it’s a little out of town, and not nearly as many people go there. I usually prefer the second one. So I went there this evening because I really, really need the exercise, and it was as empty as always: me, 2 much younger kids, and an old man in the pool, with the kids’ mother and some other guy watching from the pool-house, which is a bit off. The old man is perhaps in his late 50s or early 60s, and he’s doing laps, albeit very slowly. When I finish off a lap I notice him standing about a quarter way from the shallow end, clutching the wall, and he weakly waves me over. When I get there, he says, “Can you help me? I think I’m having an angina attack.”

Oh, fuck. That’s bad, right? Where are all the people? Why isn’t there any lifeguard or attendant here!?

“Ah, OK, shall I go get someone?”
“No, there are 2 pills in the left pocket of my trousers, they’re hanging up in the locker room. It’s a grey tracksuit, actually. Just bring those.”

I run in, and nearly slip and crack my skull. I find the trousers and search and don’t find anything and search again and find 2 absurdly tiny pills in the right back pocket, and rush back.

He swallows one pill and leaves the other one there. I watch him and wonder if I shouldn’t get someone anyway.

“Ah, much better. I think I’m alright now. Just watch me, OK?”

He then does 2 lengths without stopping.


*I talk about only Malayalees and not Indians in general here for two reasons. One, I don’t have any first hand experience of any other group, so it would be unfair to make generalizations about them; to use a technical analogy, it is one thing to use a fact that I know holds in some situation and trace out possible implications, which is like linear interpolation between two points on a graph. I might be off, but I know there’s some semblance of truth. It’s a different issue to assume that the facts in one instance probably hold for another instance, which is like doing linear interpolation at the edge of the graph, knowing only the slope and one point. The second reason is that I don’t really think it’s this prevalent in other groups anyway. We as a group are rather renowned for our tendency to go far and wide and interact with other cultures. Also, from what I’ve heard, the relative position of Hindi to English in north India is much, much stronger than the relative position of Malayalam to English in Kerala. Basically, people care about it more.

**Important exception: I use English with lots of people in my school who are just much more comfortable in English, and also with “fraud mallu” cousins who are visiting, who grew up outside and didn’t really mallu that well and/or just prefer using English.


11 thoughts on “Home

  1. Wow, thats scary! I usually pride myself on being cool under pressure but only rarely have I experienced something like that (the angina attack) and one was when my mom got an asthma attack from firecracker smoke on diwali. And that time there were elders around (this was when I was 10 or something).

    Coming to the other thing, yeah I noticed it myself. I’ve started using english phrases, whole phrases, even when I’m talking to someone as obviously tam as, say, a petrol pump attendant or a vegetable vendor. At home I invariably speak english too as my mom, dad and grandpa are all excellent at it themselves. So its not much of a surprise. If I hadn’t taken tam as 2nd language in school I’m pretty sure I would’ve forgotten it by now, let alone used it. I think the partial english often confuses people and I end up spending much more time translating the thought to tam and then speaking it. This, in spite of the fact that I was pretty good at tam as 2nd lang and scored 98/100 just 6 years back.

  2. Hah, that’s one badass old man.

    When people ask me what my mother tongue is, I usually don’t know what to say. Technically, it is Tamil, but I think in English and I’m most comfortable and proficient in English, and I learnt it as early in my life as I learnt Tamil.
    The dialect of Tamil that is supposedly my mother tongue is so different from the Chennai variety that I’ve totally lost touch with it and also failed to properly grasp Chennai Tamil.

    In the end I guess that makes me a Fraudtam.

  3. Ha, I guess I could have generalized to “south indians”, at least 🙂 .

    I was never bad at mallu in school, I got 95 in 10th and whatnot, but I haven’t even read a single book in mallu since then, although I keep making pledges to try one. I don’t think I could write a full-length essay now. I can read and speak properly, though, thank god.

  4. I have no idea about the Indian, or Mayalam, situation but I know a little bit about English as an “invading” language.
    I’m using English more and more in my everyday language, which goes so far that I sometimes can’t remember the German words, only the English ones.
    I read far more in English than I do in German. I’m thinking of submitting myself to a quota, or a system where I read one English, one German book.
    And of course, I write my blog in English.

    I don’t really know what to make of it. On the one hand, I’m pretty much bilingual now, on the other hand it feels like it costs me my German vocabulary.

    And that’s only the language aspect, that’s not even scratching the culture part…

    • Well, “the culture part” is what all those highly-praised books are for, in our case 🙂 .

      Is that kind of a quota really manageable for you? I guess German has more options. I couldn’t dream of doing something like that for my mother tongue. There aren’t nearly enough books that I would find interesting. And it would be really, really slow reading, especially given how fast I read English books.

      • Yeah, the quota would be manageable. I read equally fast in German and English and there are loads of German books, either originally German or translated from other languages (translation is a _huge_ part of the publishing industry in Germany and Austria). Though I refuse to read translations when I can read the original language (only exception: French. Because my French deteriorated so much it takes me about a year to read a page) that still leaves more than enough stuff.

        I guess it’s more difficult for you… But I think it would be worth the effort to at least try to get your reading speed up a little bit, wouldn’t it? Maybe you can have a different quota (if that’s what you want) like 3:1 or so…

      • Hmm…it would be a lot of effort, though. I doubt even 3:1 is manageable, because there just aren’t that many malayalam books that I would want to read. At least, I don’t think there are. I guess I could ask around.

        Nikhil George Punnoose EE06B071 Department of Electrical Engineering IIT Madras

  5. Stumbled onto this blog. Yea good writeup about Malayalam. I face the same situation with the mixing in so much English into the Malayalam. It is when talking to my grandparents which requires pure Malayalam that do I have to stop and think , as you can’t use english words that subconsciously mix in as they don’t understand. Then you realize how much of the two I mix in when speaking.

    • Oh yeah, I have to do the same thing with my grandparents, although usually I just go on till they stop me 🙂

      Nikhil George Punnoose EE06B071 Department of Electrical Engineering IIT Madras

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