Mummy, my maternal grandmother always held that there was no problem in sending children to local language medium schools. Every time I spoke of the merits of my ICSE education or hinted that younger cousins could take it up, she said, “All my five children studied in the pallikkudam, Malayalam medium. Do they have any less of anything?”
This time, Elema, Mummy’s youngest daughter was with us. Her oldest was in the fourth standard, and owing to lockdown restrictions, the new academic year would be conducted online. She decided to extend the stay as there was no need for her to be in Bangalore. In the midst of their conversations, I feel the gaps between one generation and the other.
Elema is worried about school fees. Her son attends a private Catholic institution. There are phone calls and WhatsApp messages about fee requirements, last dates and revised fee rates. One evening, with the rain holding its breath, Mummy tells her that it’s okay even if she sends her son to the state syllabus school where the fees are lower. “Illa Amma, you don’t understand, in this time, we cannot do that. How much ever I say, you cannot understand. It isn’t enough just to send them to the local school.”
Mummy is silenced and the rain continues to fall.
Elema’s youngest is only four. He does not speak Malayalam. When Elema moved to Bangalore for a job, she spoke English hesitatingly. She made Malayali friends, and even now her grammar isn’t perfect. One day, as she was texting her brother about the pandemic, I intervened. She gave me the phone and said, “You text him, but make sure you make some grammar mistakes or he will know it’s not me.”
Mummy also had a dream of knowing English. She tells me one evening as we snack on ethekka varuthathu and boli and ulli vada, “The Chungapara kids used to go around talking in English. Looking at them, I used to wish, ‘Oh! If only I could speak in English like them!’”
“Now you have grandkids who speak only English,” I say.
“Only English means, only English. That too with a madhaama accent.”
English movies and serials
The dream of English came to the middle class with the liberalisation of the Indian economy. Suddenly, you had TV channels and radio shows that screened and played content from across the globe. From the Kathaprasangam days, it suddenly became Radio Mirchi with a good number of advertisements thrown in. For us, growing up in Bangalore in the 1990s, Radio One, Fever 104 and Radio Indigo were favourites.
Amma and Appa grew up without TV shows, but they were both certain kinds of cinephiles. For Amma, cinema was a refuge from real life pains. She liked melodramatic family romances that ended happily. For a while, I adopted the same philosophy for films. For Appa, cinema was an event of intimacy. He grew up watching parents who settled their loud, painful fights in the comfort of cinema halls. They were also anglophiles. So Velliammachi grew up on The Sound of Music, which she watched 12 times on the single screen. My sister recently discovered that Velliammachi’s last film in the theatre, before she died in 1994, was Speed.
When Appa took Amma to watch Schindler’s List, Amma was horrified. And later, when he took the three of us to watch The Green Mile, I burst into tears. After Achachan died, my parent’s theatre-going days ended. Many years later, we occasionally visited the theatre to watch Malayalam films that broke box office records and came to Bangalore to fulfil the Malayalee/ military crowd here. We went to the Military Theatre in Shivajinagar to watch Meeshamadhavan and CID Moosa. Later, when Indiranagar became a mini-Keralam, we went to INOX to watch Amen and Bangalore Days.
The only time we went to watch an English film was GI Joe because it was the only non-Kannada film showing in the multipurpose theatre that opened nearby at Gopalan Mall. By then, we had discovered that English movies were eye rolls, “What bad things are you watching?” Except for one undressing scene, where the zipper of a red dress opens (I held my breath and made myself small), the movie flowed appropriately and ended to Amma’s satisfaction. We never watched another English movie in the theatre, until my secret theatre trips in college.
This English-speaking world opened for us in the few Disney TV shows we followed religiously — The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and That’s So Raven. When we graduated to HBO and Star Movies. There were silent nods of disapproval and a rush to watch TV when the adults weren’t around. When they were, I desperately prayed there would be no kissing scenes. I was most comfortable with dinner-table scenes because they were the safest.
Once, Mummy watched a scene with me and advised: “Learn how to use spoon and forks from these movies. Look how they eat without chewing their food with their mouth open, see how they make minimal noise while using cutlery.”
But the fear of being caught watching a love scene made me crave watching films alone by myself, on a personal computer screen. Here, I could move along and go back to moments I liked in the frame. Moments in which women made spaces their own, spoke and dressed in specific ways. I watched rom-coms to copy these women — Brit Robertson’s glossy lips and obsessive dream to travel in The First Time, Meg Ryan’s love for “bouquets of sharpened pencils” and her snot-filled tissue papers in her apartment in You’ve Got Mail. Konkona Sen Sharma’s yellow walls and omelet producing kitchen in Wake Up Sid, (a hovering Sid being the only disappointment), and Baby’s long kurtis, small jobs and fire against men who try to contain her, in Kumbalangi Nights.
Women and our English dreams
Those teenage dreams in English had slowly percolated into our own cinema, our own TV and radio shows. Women were no longer expected to be home-science graduates/dropouts who marry, care for children, and cook and clean for husbands who go to work. They have dreams of their own — starting a home bakery like Elema, passing the SLET like Cheriamma. Or being professionally sought after like my aunts, who married into the family.
As for Amma, Mummy’s dream became Amma’s necessity. The Malayalam medium girl who used to read Balarama comics underneath her Malayalam textbook in school is now an English language teacher. She learns bits and pieces of Hindi and Odia as she teaches her seminary students the tenses and verbs and gerunds and forms of English. Amma learnt Kannada with me while I was studying it in kindergarten. She knew the poem in my Kannada textbook, “Moda raviyu bandide” better than me. She grew up to enjoy watching Mungaru Male for “Hanisuthithe yako indu.” Although she now speed-watches Malayalam movies with happy endings on YouTube while peeling garlic or shelling peas, she has fulfilled her own ‘Ing-leash dream’.
Mummy, I know, is proud. But where are the dreams of women, who aren’t allowed to access English? Who cannot scoff at English the way men do? Are their dreams written away? Do they percolate into the writings of daughters and granddaughters? Or do they die because of high court judgements that refuse girls’ education for a piece of cloth they choose to wear?
Anna Lynn is a research scholar in Comparative Literature who presses watered images into writing, as the Woolfian stream passes. She is an avid reader, interested in art, cinema and women’s writing.