Illustration by Diya Gupta

A Broken Mother Tongue

My broken Malayalam does hurt me sometimes. Most days it’s a mere scratch. Some days, the jagged edges dig deep into my soul.

Mar 24, 2018

Out in the city one day, while sitting in a taxi with two of my friends, the driver struck up a conversation with us. I learned that the driver was from Kerala. So I decided to talk to him in Malayalam.
“I’m from Kerala too! Well, I was born and brought up here but —”
“Born and brought up here, eh? I can figure that out from the way you speak. Your Malayalam is broken—not proper—”
At this point I had stopped listening. My heart dropped and my Malayali pride cracked. The sting of the comment was obvious on my face. I felt a literal ache, an odd mix of “sorry” and “how dare you?” Sorry for not doing my mother tongue justice. How dare you, I’m trying my best; sorry for not learning how to read or write it, how dare you, how can you just point it out?
Why, you may ask, did it hurt that I had the flaws in my Malayalam pointed out?
Originating from the Dravidian family of languages in India, Malayalam is spoken by over 38 million people in the South Indian State of Kerala. It is technically my mother tongue. However, I am a Non-Resident Indian —NRI— who has spent her entire life in Abu Dhabi. My parents are UAE residents from Kerala, who made sure my childhood and present life were filled with remnants of what they called home: my father’s 200 Malayalam books in our home library, the Malayalam manorama calendar, the spices my mother cooks with and our everyday conversations.
While I can understand and speak Malayalam, I cannot read or write it. I’m not entirely sure of my bilingual ability. This confusion is partially because the schools I attended in Abu Dhabi convinced my parents that English was “more useful.” They even bombarded me with three other languages — Arabic, Hindi and French — over 12 years. In the end, English is the only language I can say I am proficient in, as can ironically be seen in this article itself.
The bullies from my school also deserve some credit for my broken Malayalam, as they among other things, made fun of my Malayali accent when I spoke English. As a result of the bullying, I didn’t speak Malayalam for a year. It also didn’t help that that my summer visits to Kerala to meet family and friends were so rare. I haven’t been to Kerala in two years.
Due to all these reasons, my Malayalam has been a source of both entertainment and commentary. Relatives who comment on my non Malayali-ness behind my back often receive a well-rehearsed, innocent comeback from me in Malayalam. My maternal grandparents rejoice in the Malayalam I know in comparison to my cousins in the UK. My mother, on the other hand, laughs at all my comic mispronunciations.
I try to not let missing this aspect of my heritage bother me because I have always been attached to my Malayalam, however broken. I was brought up to be utterly proud to be Malayali and I am.
My identity, however, is also a complete mismatch of UAE and Kerala. I honestly don’t know where Kerala starts or UAE ends, where Malayalam starts and English ends. Maybe I will never know because those are not the only parts of my identity. Sure, I get along with my improper Malayalam but I cannot help but think that I lost out on something because I don’t know my mother tongue properly. There were many days when my mother would cry after my grandparents asked her why she didn’t teach me Malayalam over Skype. It’s not like I haven’t tried multiple times. It always slips past me.
My broken Malayalam does hurt me sometimes. Most days it’s a mere scratch. Some days, the jagged edges dig deep into my soul. One such day was when I heard my Dad’s sigh while I stared blankly at a page of his journal covered with the blue ink curls.
My Dad loves writing. It was he who inspired me to write, encouraging my love for words by buying me books and praising whatever I wrote. Four years ago, I started a tradition of buying him a special journal for him to write in wherever I go. The first one I bought for him was filled to the brim with the loopy curls of his writing, more Malayalam than English so I can barely attempt to read it. One day, he tried to read one of his poems to me, in hopes that the oral rendition would be easier for me since I couldn’t read it. What we both did not anticipate was me being stumped at the words he used for they were meant for Malayalam literature, not for common use. He tried to play it off but I could see his pain.
My first word was Acha — father in Malayalam. My Acha says that my mother pouted the whole day because I did not say Amma, mother, instead. It was he who also named me Aathma, soul in Malayalam. My name and my first word were because of him. He is the first person to read my stories, poems and articles but I cannot read his work because it is often in Malayalam. Being the Literature major and book-lover I am, I pride myself in being able to read any kind of literature. I know I cannot read every book in the world but shouldn’t I be able to at least read one of my Dad’s Malayalam poems? I cannot even read a simple sign.
It became more of an issue when I came to NYU Abu Dhabi. Back in high school, there were a large number of Malayalis so that part of me didn’t stand out. On campus, I ended up being a representative of some sorts, where people are not completely aware of the diversity of India, the existence of Kerala and the involvement of NRIs in UAE. I decided to dive headfirst into putting my Malayali, NRI heritage on the NYUAD map and learn about it at the same time.
While writing essays for classes about Kerala, a friend asked me why I was obsessed with Kerala all of a sudden.
My answer? I’m finally reclaiming a part of me that I lost. I finally stopped letting my broken Malayalam hold me back. I am now going to learn how to read and write Malayalam. I may never fully be able to but I want to at least attempt it.
At least for my Acha, who believed in my ability to write.
Earlier this week, I told my Acha I wanted to learn Malayalam. He looked at me, smiled and said it would be a little easy for me because I already know how to speak it.
Aathma Dious is a staff writer. Email her at
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