I dislike the word mallu – especially when Malayalees concede to that diminutive nickname. But pardesi Malayalee youth tell me I am being oversensitive. So be it and mallu shall it be, at least in this piece, ‘cos it’s all about another term that I dislike even more – Mallu English.
Browse through mallu blogs and you’ll find end number of them on mallu English. We don’t find Tamilians or Kannadigas or Bongs ridiculing their own use of English. Why is the mallu different? Why is he so apologetic about his accent, intonation, vocabulary?
Here’s my take on this issue.
The first issue here is why mallu English has become such a national joke that it should figure in Hindi movies and serials, and also become a source of embarrassment to pardesi mallus? It is not as though people from the other states speak Queens English. All non- native speakers of English (or any language) carry over the linguistic habits from their mother tongue. Then why is mallu English alone targeted? The obvious reason is Kerala has greater literacy than other states and exports more personnel to other parts of India than other states. Only a negligible percentage of this number has received education in elite schools and colleges. The bulk comes from government schools and vernacular medium. Unlike other states where English medium public and convent schools have a large presence in the metros, Kerala has less than a handful of such institutions. It is to our credit that this underexposure to spoken English has not deterred the Malayalee from seeking his fortune outside the state. Their ubiquitous presence in areas usually dominated by the products of elite schools from other states, makes mallu English constantly heard. It’s the snobbery of the products of such institutions like Doon school and Hill Station schools that makes them ridicule the mallu English, but let us Malayalees not echo that stupidity.
The next issue is: Why are the mallus tongue-tied when it comes to speaking in English?
The answer is, he suffers from a terrible Anglophobia rooted in an attitudinal problem. Unfortunately, the mallu labours and groans under the misconception that being able to speak English like a ‘sayip’ is the ultimate achievement in life. This ridiculous notion is the undoing of the otherwise well accomplished mallu. While in Kerala some time back, I overheard several discussions on the Inzamam – Hare confrontation. There was not a single conversation on that topic where undue weightage was not given to Inzamam’s poor English, and believe it or not, there was this repeated comment that competence in English is an essential requirement to play international cricket!!!!! Well well well! I thought one played cricket with the bat and the ball and not with the tongue! On and off, you hear this wishful thinking that P.T. Usha spoke better English - almost as though, better English would have made it possible for her to run faster so as to enable her to make up that th of a second which cost her a medal in the Olympics! Surely one doesn’t run in English, Malayalam or, for that matter, in any language. Then again there is this equation (in Kerala)of smartness with ‘adipoli English’. A good-for-nothing wastrel is pardoned if his English is good.
As a teacher of English language in the state of Kerala, I have been unsettled by the attitudinal problem of students who come from Malayalam medium schools. They look up at the teacher in terror when she begins the lecture in English and nearly faint when the question session arrives requiring individuals to answer in English . Of course there are several reasons for the fall in the standard of English in Kerala but that’s not the issue here. My concern is the unholy reverence with which this foreign language is treated in the state. Had I not been an English teacher paid to teach the language, I’d have spoken thus to my students:
“Dear students, it is our birth right to make mistakes in English. We have no business to speak impeccable English. English is just another language like our own. Let us not forget that long before this Anglo-Saxon language took shape (post 6th century) we had highly evolved languages in India, and literature and sophisticated aesthetics in Tamil and Sanskrit. So why are drooling over this language which is but a reminder of our shameful history of subjugation? Agreed. English has its uses. Bur let us give it only the respect it deserves – that of a utility object, instead of allowing ourselves to be overawed by it. Even in UK, the concept of Standard English and RP is pooh poohed. Then why on earth are we striving to sustain those outmoded concepts? Do you think Tony Blair would be able to speak Malayalam like you and me even if he had learnt it as his second language?”
Only such a devil-may-care attitude can loosen the tongue of the Mallu.