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.