Confessions of an Almost Bilingual

I find it hard to call myself a Malayali. My accented English may help the person at the other end of the line recognise that I’m a south Indian. But the broken Malayalam I use at the local shop near my Class 10 tuition centre casts me off as an outsider.

The first time I tried to pronounce the word mazha – which means rain in Malayalam – the ‘R’ refused to roll off my NRI tongue. I stood there, in my kasavu pavada and blouse, the golden edges of the puffed shoulders irritating my skin, starkly defying my appearance as I acknowledged the rain as maya – almost close to the pronunciation of ‘imagination’ in Malayalam – the ‘yeah’ protruding from my lips. My classmate laughed at me, telling me something in my mother tongue, but I couldn’t even begin to understand what.

On the second day of the media studies class, the professor said, “Read articles written in your mother tongue.”

Mother tongue, the language in which the letters and words leave my mouth sloppily, transforming me into a nervous teenager having her first kiss, over and over again, leaving me a little more ashamed than before? How could I tell her that I don’t know how to read Malayalam?

My mother tongue was my third language in school. The teacher with her hair flattened with copious amounts of coconut oil, a gold chain attached to her bifocals, called me a madamma – an English woman – on the fourth day of Class 5. The batch of children burst out laughing, reinforcing the word’s negative connotation. Even after six years, a friend made me read the Malayalam portion of the multi-lingual signboard at an art exhibition, laughingly ensuring I don’t take the easy route of the English option.

When the mother – whose tongue gave me the language I don’t speak – told the girl in pig-tails they’re leaving for India, seven-year-old naivety looked at it as an extra-large summer vacation.


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Eight weeks later, I was complaining about the fan to a maid who doesn’t understand me. The next day, the 9 am bell in the new school announced the arrival of a period I didn’t know I would grow to dread. The bright, curvy letters on the pages of the thin textbook I wrapped in brown paper jeered at me, and I couldn’t bear its weight.

As a ten-year-old, I misspelt all the words on my Malayalam dictation, and a red zero scarred the two-lined paper with my name on it. I can’t pronounce 11 in Malayalam – പതിനൊന്ന് – without sounding like a tourist; my uncle has to clarify, “It’s a Tuesday,” when I ask him what day ‘ചൊവ്വാഴ്ച’ is; and any conversation with a grocer will end in, “Oh, you meant that!”.

I think in English how I can’t express in Malayalam, and I call a pathiri – a Malabari dish – pancakes. The lunch after a Friday namaz after noon demands a chain of conversations with family members, and yes, in the tongue that resists my advances. I feel a little less guilty when my cousin brother hails Harry Styles as a classic, and not Yesudas.

At the end of each day, I can find myself heartbroken, curling up next to a book, one written in a language that doesn’t represent me, but can help write me into history. I spoon translations from the bowl of literature to help ease the pain.

Diya Isha is a student at Ashoka University, Sonepat who finds herself fiddling with words, and never abiding to a word limit. You can find her in places where they write long, over-punctuated sentences.

Featured image credit:愚木混株 Cdd20/ Pixabay