Monday, December 11, 2006

Confessions of an Alienated Malayalee

yes. that’s me. I call myself that ’cos of my indifferent competence in my mother tongue. I think in Malayalam, but have no confidence to write in that language. I sometimes think if I could write in the language I think and feel in, I’d become the Shakespeare of Malayalam literature. Don’t laugh. this is how I console myself when I fall into one of those fits of depression at my inability express myself comprehensively – thoughts, feeling s and their nuances. The English language does not have corresponding terms to express malayalee feeling. Or, I am not competent enough in this angrezi tongue. So there is a huge gap between my sensibilities and the only language I can write in. Frustrating, isn’t it?

How did this happen? it’s a long story. I was born less than ten years after Independence. So guess I can call myself post independence generation. Those were days when people believed that future belonged to people who received education in English. I was a victim of that false notion. But, I did have Malayalam as a subject till 4th standard. But the Malayalam teacher took a dislike to me for a reason I don’t want to go into here(I have written a poem on that – so intense was my resentment towards that teacher who alienated me from myself). Unfortunately, along with me, that teacher was also promoted to the middle school. As soon as this news was confirmed, I went home and wept and wept till my mother agreed to switch my second language to French! With that, my connections with Malayalam text books, therefore literary Malayalam, were severed forever and ever.

Thus it is that my imagination was shaped completely by the angrezi language. They say if you learn a language, you tend to identify yourself wiith the culture of native speakers of that language. So my childhood imagination was filled with Jack and Jill, Polly putting the kettle on (I used to go around our kitchen looking for the kettle I saw in illustrated nursery rhyme books- found none), sixpence and pocket full of rye (thought that rye was the higher denomination of sixpence). Must say I used to be fascinated that the English could bake blackbirds in a pie and still keep them alive. Fortunately for me, I had a lot of neighbours, cousins from whom I picked up kakey, kaket, koodevidey?, Omana kuttan, govindan, ayyappandey amma, neyyappam chuttu. I sang these with full throated ease and felt I belonged. But when I sang the English rhymes, my imagination got activated and made me yearn for things I knew nothing of. Like they say, unheard melodies are sweeter. As I reached primary school, Enid Blyton was my staple food. and also all those comics – Three Stooges, Totem, Tin Tin, Classics, Richie Rich, Little Lotta - - - - . my horizons widened and without my quite knowing it, I moved away from my roots into a world I had never experienced. Along with it, an attitudinal change crept into me – a feeling of superiority over those who didn’t know the Famous Five and Captain Haddock!!

Soon, I started reading romances. Mills and Boons told me how the westerners fell in love, how hostility was an imperative prelude to love! How men had to be dark and tall ( I didn’t know then that, that dark was not our dark), that when men fell in love, they snapped at their lady loves for no reason. But i didn't know how people in love behaved in my culture! I soon got tired of Mills and Boons but Georgette Heyer remained my favourite for a long time. How she fired my imagination! her novels transported to a still more remote world - the Regency period, Victorian age - - -and I moved with wide eyed wonder among powder and patch, frills and gloves, lords and ladies and fops - --- Humour so pervaded her narration that I fell in love with the English language! My alienation from my own language was complete.

My estrangement from the imaginative world represented by Malayalam literature is the saddest thing that has happened to me. As I grew older, I moved into the world of English classics and poems. The breathtakingly beautiful paddy fields of Kerala skirted by beckoning coconut trees made me search for Wordsworthian terms to describe them. No muse works that way and the poet in me died. So did whatever creativity I had. Now I realize that one can create only in the language one thinks in, feels in - in the language that shapes one’s day to day life. I was trapped between two worlds – and was not resourceful enough to find a way out of this trap.

Today, I feel like a half baked creature. I fully realized what I lost when I got my first employment in a college in mid Travancore. my colleagues seemed to be at home with such a rich literature and culture. Jokes had to be explained to me and I didn’t find them funny. The humour was lost in the translation. Philosophical ruminations in Malayalam seemed part of the daily diet of my English department. And my colleagues felt guilty when they saw me trying to pretend I understood. Fortunately for me, my spoken Malayalam was extremely good. so I belonged as long as the conversation did not move into higher planes. But it did. too often. That is when I wrote that vitriolic poem about my Malayalam teacher who was instrumental in uprooting me even as I remained physically rooted.


  1. there still is time.U can start reading malayalam novels. I would suggest VKN if its funny philosophical rumination u r looking forward to participate in.

  2. I know what you feel. I can read Malayalam, but forget about writing. My spelling's absolutely terrible. Hopefully, with reading Malayalam blogs (I don't have access to other forms of Mallu literature), I can change that situation.

  3. hi,

    i sympathise with your feelings. i can understand exactly what u feel. i have undergone a different kind of alienation. please read about it in my blog about the kanyakumari mallu.
    sadly i too grew up on the same staple as urs. enid blyton, tin tin etc. but luckily amarchitra katha rooted me to what i am and enlightened me to my culture. my malayalam is home taught. which means i missed out reading the rich literature. but my thirst to know more about my language led me to read atleast some poetry and a bunch of short stories by MT. as for novels, it is a dream to someday read randaam oozham. since i am slow at reading, a novel seems like an unsurmountable hurdle. but someday, i will.and i am so envious of other members in my family who quote grammar stuff like alankaram and vritham and evrything. but when it comes to talking, quoting some poetry, proverbs colloquialism etc, i am good. mallu bloggers have asked me to blog in mal. i am giving it serious thought. some day i will. venemenkil chakka verilum kaykkum.

  4. Ms...Woderfully said!!! A half Baked Creature....ha..ha..couldnt have been more aptly put.I can understand because I too am a person who likes to think in Malayalam bit dfntly cannot write in it.But what about those 'Malayalees'who know the language perfectly well but prefer talking in broken Angrezi....will they be half baked creatures too...??

  5. economics say human need are unsatisfied.
    an old malayalam quote says,
    ikkare nikkumbam akkare pacha.!

    when hundreds of malayalis are trying to forget the language and thousands claim they dont know it 'Kasam se' and all that here s somebody who wished she knew mallu. HATS off to you mam.

  6. I somehow didnt like this post.Sorry for commenting on something thats so obviously personal.But how can a teacher be blamed for lack of knowledge in a subject? Especially a language? Of course I know u are an English prof and is more qualified to speak on the subject. I myself was taught Malayalam in LKG and UKG.Later I shifted to Hindi and French.But even though I havent even heard of vrithams or alankarams I find I have more contact with; and a lot more affection for Malayalam literature than my friends who learnt Malayalam right till college.When I say 'literature' I completely exclude poetry...but then I dont fare well in English or Hindi poetry either.


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