As Indians, we take to languages pretty easily. We grow up with more than one language around us. In my case, I grew up in a Tam-Brahm home in Kerala and hence had Tamil inside my home and Malayalam the moment I stepped out. In fact Malayalam is so entwined in my daily life that my parents often talk to each other in Malayalam and talk to me in Tamil! I went to Riyadh at the age of three and there was English and Hindi in school to add to the list. Then we had Bengalis and Maharashtrians as neighbours, which meant I got to understand, if not speak, those languages.
I’m thankful that my parents didn’t bring English into our daily conversations, for it was a language purely for my interactions in my school. But then, modern day schooling homogenises every thought in your head with strokes of English. Right from childhood, it is your proficiency in the Queen’s language that is applauded. Besides, having done my entire schooling abroad, my mother tongue took a back seat somewhere in the process. Today, I feel that English has slowly become the language I think in. It is not a flattering thought.
Whenever I enlist the languages I know in my CV, I mentioned English, Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil, in that order. The reason being that Tamil, in spite of being my mother tongue, is the language I am least proficient in. A reason could be that the Tamil I grew up speaking was Palghat Tamil, which is markedly different from what is spoken in say, Chennai, because of the heavy influence of Malayalam in it. I have no qualms about the dialect I speak, which has developed a character of its own over time. But then, I had no formal mechanism to learn my mother tongue. Whatever little I learnt was from my mother, and she, having studied in Malayalam and English all her life, knew Tamil in a limited way. Thankfully, I had an option to study Malayalam in my school and learnt it well enough to read a few comic books and newspapers. My mother also subscribed to the popular children’s weekly Balarama when I was in school, so that I gained proficiency in the language.
Then came Hindi, to which I took a special liking, for which there were two reasons. To start with, television entertainment was doled out in the first few years in Hindi alone (starting with Doordarshan and later, Zee and Star) and hence, I was able to take to the language early on. Secondly, my teachers were very encouraging when it came to experimentation with the language and today, my proficiency in Hindi is next only to English. Besides, good Hindi movies also helped a lot. I also owe a bit of my Hindi to the Pakistani taxi drivers with whom I would converse during my days in Riyadh and Dubai. The first Hindi novel I read in my school days was Sarat Chandra’s Devdas. I remember, the librarian, who lent me the book, was displeased that I took a novel and not a Mathematics guide when I was in my 10th standard.
Recently I picked up Sarat Chandra’s novel Charitraheen (in Hindi) and decided to read it. Many issues cropped up. I had lost touch with the script and hence took time to pick up speed. Many other interesting books took over my time in between and after all hiccups, I finished it after almost 10 months. But there is a sense of achievement after having finished it. I felt happy that I read it in an Indian language and I have always felt that Indian languages convey the Indian thought process in the best manner. I went ahead and picked up my second novel Naalukettu (in Malayalam). I don’t know how long I will take for this. But I know at the end of it, I will be more satisfied than having read five English books, for with each such book, I am reclaiming a part of my literary culture. My journey has pleasantly begun.