I was raised by languages

પ્રિય reader,

It is #worldmotherlanguageday today and I wanted to share something I wrote on Instagram some time back. This is a longer version of what I then posted. It is really long, you are warned.

In my Catholic school we were told, "If you are found talking in any other language other than English, you will be punished." During the Hindi period we could speak in Hindi and in Marathi class we could roll out Marathi. Sanskrit we didn't know enough of, so we barely spoke it, except विनाश काले विपरीत बुद्धि. We mostly stuck to the rule the good children that we were.

After we were done with school, when my school friends would break into Hindi, I would find it odd.  While in school when my neighbour’s kids who were our friends spoke in Hindi in their school uniforms, I thought it was just not right.

Despite the dictum, languages found their way. Yesudas and Chitra sang to us in Malayalam from our National tape recorder, I think the film was Panchagni പഞ്ചാഗ്നി (five fires), loosely inspired from the life of naxalite, K. Ajitha. One of the songs, Aa rathri manju poyi ആ രാത്രി മാഞ്ഞു പോയി (that-night-disappeared / was wiped out) I remember singing it as Aa ratri Maami poyi (That night Maami [uncle’s wife] left) and wondering where and why she went in the night.

My mother spoke in Malayalam and my father in English. Our summer vacations were in Kerala where our cousins made fun of our Malayalam. By the time we learned some Malayalam in Thrissur, our accent and our Thrissur Malayalam was laughed at by the other part of our family in Kollam. To be honest, I was ashamed of the language, I tried to talk to my mother in Hindi at home but she would only reply back in Malayalam. One Ammavan from Kerala Samajam would come home to teach us Malayalam. My atheist father thought the scriptures were the best way to teach a language, we were taught from the Ramayana, I could barely understand anything and I was least interested. 

On the playground we spoke a tereko-mereko kinda Hindi which we knew we couldn't use with elders. If my mum ever came to talk to us on the playground, she had strict instructions from us, "NEVER SPEAK IN MALAYALAM." My friends called it Andu-Gundu-Thanda-Paani.

Then we got Asianet at home and something changed. We discovered  Mohanlal. He was so funny, so affable, so talented, we loved everything about him. His entry in our lives made us want to learn the language. We wanted to laugh with him.

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My friend, Kartika, recently said how it feels so special when you laugh in a language. Mohanlal did that to us, Malayalam became sacred. I remember thinking I’d only marry a person who spoke Malayalam. It was important. I gave that up but when I recently matched with someone who’d refer to me as Indooty, my heart would melt. I would feel seen in a completely different way.

When I was young, my eldest sister told us that listening to old Hindi music was cool and I discovered Mohd Rafi.  I learned to love him because I loved Shammi Kapoor and Rafi sang most of his songs. I'd  borrow tapes from my Manglorean neighbour- Sad songs of Rafi, Rafi- somber mood, etc. Despite listening to songs like - Gham Uthane Ke Liye Mein To Jeeye Jaaunga ग़म उठाने के लिए, I learned to love Rafi Sahab's melodious Punjabi-laced Hindi. I am glad over the years, I discovered absolute gems by him, like this one - Apni too har aah ek toofan hai अपनी तो हर आह एक तूफ़ान है.

Years later, when I briefly dated a boy who lived close to Rafi Sahab's house, I would imagine singing to Rafi Sahab - Ek ghar banoonga, tere ghar ke saamne. Unfortunately, my lover had no love for Rafi and didn't speak much Hindi and I couldn't share this part of me with him. But he knew how to soothe my soul, he cheered me on when I stood up to my oppressors, he was so much #TeamIndu that his presence was a balm to my broken soul. But that’s not the story for today.

Going back, we barely went to temples (communist father) or prayed at home but my neighbour's kids went to Gurudwaras, so we went with them to matha tekko. I learned prayers, went for langars and Parbhat Pheris and ate a lot of kada prashad which I recently cooked during the lockdown.  Living next door to Punjabis, I often heard Punjabi mothers ask their kids,"Chittar painda?" and refer to my mum as Paabiji! 

My best friend Paramjeet was Punjabi who would introduce me to me Phulkari among other things. We shared our love for MJ (her favourite) and Bon Jovi (mine). We judged people who didn't listen to English music. Often, I didn't admit that I liked the Hindi songs I liked because it wasn't cool. Old Hindi songs were cool but telling someone you liked Tamma Tamma was plain disastrous. So we hid our love. Much later when I met friends who went CBSE and ICSE schools, they'd make fun of my English and my taste in music. Even the cool English music we listened was uncool because real people didn't listen to pop music. 

Talking about music, ARR made me feel proud because till then there were no popular South Indian figures who one could be proud of. At least none in the Hindi film industry. There was Sridevi who I loved not just for her sheer talent but also because she was ‘Madrasi’ like me. But loving Sridevi didn’t mean connections, ARR certainly meant connections. I loved how North Indian kids would come and ask me to translate ‘Usilampatti Penkutti’ for them. It was a bit much to get them to understand that several languages are spoken in South India and I didn’t speak Tamizh but I loved the attention. ARR made us popular. He also made me want to learn Tamil.
 Many years later when I spent a year in Chennai, I would talk to old aunties near my house in T. Nagar pretending I knew Tamil. I could answer their "ooru-home engey-where" type questions well but soon they would start talking to me in chaste Tamil and I would have to tell them, "Tamizh teriyathu-don't-know."

Much later when I was in love with a Tamizh guy, he would play Kanmani Anbodu for me. Since he didn't speak enough Malayalam and I didn't speak enough Tamizh, we spoke English with a South Indian intotation. It was our language of love.

My friend Vibha who speaks Kannada (which I don't claim to know at all )and I speak in a similar kinda English but what I have with Vibha is a different kinda  South Indian English, peppered with our experiences.  Vibha and I have remained friends and I know we will stay friends, that’s how Vibha is. But I am reminded of this poem by Arno Kotro from Finnish because of the language we speak.

Translated from Finnish

When you lose someone
in that someone
you just don't lose the one

there disappears a whole miniature civilization


one secret world

dear and conceivable
in the middle of this inconceivability

it is the doom of two indigenous people

it can't be reborn with anyone

once destroyed 
will stay destroyed forever.

So did I learn Tamil? In 2017, I was called to work with sex workers in Chennai, I spent a month brushing up my Tamil. I would talk to my parents in Tamil. My mum grew up in Bangalore where she spoke both Tamil and Kannada along with Malayalam. She would help me. Sometimes my parents corrected and laughed at me but when in Chennai and at the workshop, I told someone," neenga-you, romba-very, azhaga- beautiful." They beamed. 

I forgot to mention Gujrati, something I knew a little of  because my neighbour had a love marriage, a Gujju married to a Punjabi. Aunty taught in a Gujrati medium school. She would get the Gujrati paper in the evening and we would read the headlines with her. When she corrected school papers, she would also make an answer sheet, when we insisted, she would let us look for errors. So I knew some Gujrati when I went to study in Sophia Polytechnic where a lot of the girls spoke Gujrati and I picked up more of the language.

In 2009 when I was in Amritsar and trying to think of all the Punjabi I knew, all I could remember was Gujju. But my knowledge of Gujrati came to use when I went to teach at a non-profit in Bhopal where some of the kids spoke Pardhi, a Bhil language. I could understand the Gujrati words in their tongue and would tell them, "Ahi-come Aavo- here. Beso-sit" I loved the shock on their faces. They would ask their teacher,"How does this Didi know our language?"  

The folks at the non-profit told me, “Since you speak a Dravidian language, maybe you understand Gondi too.” I wasn't able to understand Gondi at all. Gondi is closer to Telugu which I don't claim to know at all, nor do I understand Tulu or Kannada.  But Mangalorean Konkani, I follow a bit because when I was 10, a boy was born in our neighbourhood. We used words like bugga- baby, cheddu-child while playing with him. We would sing him Konkani baby songs.

Some years ago while taking a bus to Panjim, I chanced upon a conversation between two women and figured I could get the gist of what they were saying. It sent me down the rabbit hole of Konkani words I had forgotten like Kakka (or shit), I am told it is the same in Sindhi too. When I taught at the German school there were days when one kid would decide that's the only word they wanted to say and giggle. A French guy in Delhi would then tell me that kakka was the word French babies use for excreta  too.

Then someone  on the internet told me that that's how the word kakoose (loo) in Konkani got its name. Now Kakoose is loo in Malayalam and Tamizh too and in several Indian languages including some African languages and I figured Kakoose is a contraction of Kakka + Huiz (house in Dutch). 

Moving on, I learned some Italian when I was 20 because after my finishing fashion school my father thought I should study in Milan and I needed Italian for that. While in class, I'd ask my teacher if I would be able to read Dante some day. I never read Dante in Italian or went to Milan even though I had admission in a design school and had paid a part of the fees. I was scared I would be a big failure. Fifteen years later, I would find myself on Milan station and would desperately fall in love and feel much like this picture - so much eye candy, don't know where to look. 

When I met my Milanese friend, I tried to remember words I had learned but I am happy to have my Italiani is limited to food. 

The other international language I tried to learn was German because I was in Vienna  and my closest friend is German and Germany has been very kind to me.

My first German teacher was a Pakistani engineer who wanted to teach me German so I would make him saag roti in cold Vienna. We met at an Indian restaurant. Kumar Sanu's 90s songs played in the background, a Sardar gentleman insisted on burning a candle and we ate sucky butter chicken.

He: Yeh toh candle light dinner ho gaya. Hahaha
Me: ha ha ha ha
Me: Btw, tumhare naam ka kya matlab hein?
He: Qamar means moon
Me: Really, Indu also means moon.
He: Tum to Pakistani lag sakti ho?
Me: Am I not too dark? Hamare yahan to sochte hein ki Pakistani auratein itni gori hoti hein, itni gori jaise they have never seen the sun.
He: Bahut saari to dekhti nahin hein kyunki unhein ghar se bahar hi nahin jaane dete.
Me: Yahan mujhe sab Bollywood ke baare mein poochte hein. Ki usmein sex kyun nahin hein? Mujhe toh bahut saara sex nazar aata hein Bollywood mein.
He: Unse kehdo, hum ko thode bahut mein hi bahut kuch ho jaata hein
He: I would so like to go to India someday but I am scared koi mujhe ISI agent na samjhe.
Me: I would like to come to Pakistan some day.
The German teacher said, "sarhade to politicians banate hein, log thodi banate hai."

It felt great to meet a neighbour I could never meet in my own country and laugh, speak in Hindi and bond on the streets of a cold European city.

In Vienna, my Russian flatmate would be stunned how I knew which Indian language to speak in as soon as I walked into an Indian store, I’d tell her when you live in a country that is so varied, you learn things that you can’t articulate. Like I couldn’t ever explain to her how once I was crossing the street and two young nuns were crossing from the other side and we would meet midway and they’d say, “Namaskaram,’ smile and cross. How shopkeepers would call me over for a meal, give me advice. How the North Indian shopkeepers when I’d asked them for a recipe would say,"Hamare yahan toh aise banate hai, aapke South mein pata nahin kaise banate hai.”

While there, I found that the German word for nude is nackt which is like the Malayalam word nakhna and the Hindi nanga. And a small Viennese kiss is bussi just like the Persian bosa and bisou in French.

Also Ruhe is peace in German and Rooh is soul is Persian, Arabic and Punjabi. I never learned enough German but I am happy to know enough to know that the men in the street are complimenting me when they see me.

If it wasn't for languages, the many I have had the pleasure of learning and speaking, I don't know who I'd be. It has made me feel like I belong. My rusty Marathi has given me access to so many government building balconies otherwise inaccessible to plebs. I am their person when I speak their language, someone they should help, someone they should cheer. They are my people when they try to speak mine.

I remember walking down from my house in Hauz Khas Village in Delhi and seeing an old and distressed couple near Aurobindo Place market, the lady was in a kashta. I approached them and spoke to them in Marathi, she cried and kissed my hands. They had walked all the way from Satara to Delhi and hearing a familiar tongue was like nectar to them. More than the money I gave them, they were happy to find one of their own. I know I have felt that way when I first landed in Vienna and the new city scared me. I was so happy to see so many Malayalis and approached one and spoke in Malayalam who not only helped me by calling my workplace but booked me a cab and asked me if he could pay 40 Euros. I politely refused. 

While in Vienna, an old lady in salwar kameez approached me and asked, "Tussi mere pind se aaye ho?" She was from Pakistan, I told her I was Indian but ''Mainu thodi thodi Punjabi aundi hai."

The love for language has opened so many worlds and hearts for me. I hoped when I first wrote this that the Sindhi man I met during the pandemic would say, "Indu Khappe!" I know this from the Kutchi kids my mum taught when I was a kid. They would appease their younger siblings by saying,"Chocolate khappe-want?" Recently I found Sindhi and Kutchi have a lot in common and khappe is one of them. I hoped he would find these words too but now Indu chooses Indu and ends this long missive.

Take care of yourself and choose yourself.