It was the best chicken sandwich I’d had in recent memory.
Roberta turned around in the passenger seat and nodded in agreement. “It’s like his speciality,” she said, grinning as she nodded at her dad who was driving us down long winding roads flanked by tall trees gently shedding orange and yellow leaves.
“And during school, he’d pack a chicken sandwich for me every single day. Right from Grade 1 till I finished school, every single day! And my friends would be so jealous of the fancy sandwiches I got from home!”
She was positively beaming. Her dad looked aloof, but I knew he was hiding a proud smile as well. I was reminded of my mom. Of all that she’d done for me growing up. She’d worked full time and still made sure I lacked nothing. Parents in Canada and India obviously had a lot in common…
“He can be grumpy at times, but I love him nevertheless! I love you Dad!” Roberta cried gleefully, punching her dad playfully.
The moment I heard her say that I remember feeling deflated. I realized I couldn’t relate to her in that moment. After all, when was the last time I told my mom I love her?
Come to think of it, how do you tell your loved ones you love them …in Malayalam?
How do you translate “I love you” into Malayalam?
I did a brief search on Google, and came across these three options:
- Enikku ninnodu ishtamanu.
- Ninne njan pranayikkunnu.
- Njan ninne snehikkunnu.
I know my articles don’t normally get comments below them, and as much as I love it when people contact me privately to share their opinions, this time around I’d genuinely love it if you commented publicly. Just so we can know if there’s any Malayali youngster out there who’s figured out a way to tell their loved ones they love them in Malayalam!
Now, here’s why this topic truly fascinates me. The first girl I ever loved (out of, you know, oh so so many!) was from Andhra Pradesh, and since we were both in the Middle East there was no question of using any language apart from English. After spending months talking to her, after thinking of her randomly throughout the day, after realizing there was nothing I wanted more than to make her laugh and smile, I told her. “I love you.”
I didn’t need to think of the right words; I didn’t have to bite my tongue because I didn’t know the right words.
But this article is not about how young Malayali lovers need to embrace their culture by using pure Malayalam when expressing love towards their partner. If you are of the Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat and Tiktok generation, go ahead and use the classic “I love you!” Just, maybe don’t lean too much on “You’re Bae!” or stuff like that?
The problem arises when you are with your elders, right? What do you do when it’s your last day with your parents before you head to a new city for a new job or education? When they’re anxiously trying to help you with your packing and repeating reminders about useful relatives you can contact in case of emergencies? What do you do in that moment when the concern about the taxi and passport and hotel booking fades, when your timetable and to-do list for the day gently freezes, and you hear the soft sigh or faint quiver in your mother’s voice that’ll make you turn around so that your heart is hit by waves of gratitude, love and sorrow. What do you say? “Umma, ningal enikkuvendi cheytatinellam…enikku…nanniyundu? Snehamundu? Sandoshamundu?”
I’ve never expressed anything intimate in Malayalam. Not to a girl I love, nor to the woman who gave me life and taught me how to live it well. Is it simply a case of an NRI Malayali not learning the right words? Can you teach me?
I know there’s an apparently simple solution to this. “Bro, just tell your mom ‘I love you, Mom!’ Nowadays, who doesn’t know the meaning of those words, man! It’s like ‘Thank you’ and ‘Welcome’. Why are you making a big fuss of all this?”
Because it’s not just about words. It’s about the culture, interactions and relationships that are built around them.
If this article ended with a brand-new Malayalam phrase that was the perfect translation for “I love you”, what do you think would happen? Assuming 400 people are reading this article, do you think all 400 of them will start using that sentence with their mothers and fathers? Tomorrow, would you finish talking to your mother and say “I love you” in the right Malayalam style?
You might. Or you might, like me, still find it tough. And that’s reasonable after a lifetime of not expressing sentiments of love, right?
After my last article mentioned how many elderly Malayalis are inactive, I received comments from readers who stated that their relatives were in fact quite spry. So, I’m aware that some Malayali families are better at expressing love than others. It’s something you’d need to reflect on your own. Are you part of a family that hugs often? Do you kiss your mother goodbye? Do you tell them how much they mean to you without your words being interrupted or cut short?
Looking back, I’m happy I grew up with the habit of pecking my mother on the cheek before leaving for school. Sure, by the time I became a teenager, I was in too much of a hurry and far too immature to realize the value of it. But my mother taught me that habit. You can see it being formed right now, with your young nieces and nephews. Some mothers and fathers will ask them for a kiss on the cheek. Others won’t, at least not with the same enduring enthusiasm over the years.
So when my mother taught me to kiss her cheeks, it wasn’t just because she felt better. Sure, as a chubby 4-year-old, I’m sure I made her heart explode whenever I planted a wet kiss. But over the years, perhaps even without her realizing, that kiss became a form of communication. It was part of my…vocabulary.
The morning after I’d had a heated argument with her over dinner and slammed the door as I hurled words that were light on my tongue but bruised her heart, I didn’t know what to do. The sunlight streaming through the kitchen window exposed my shame and guilt, but I didn’t have the words or fluency required to address the silhouette of my mother frozen next to the stove.
And then I stepped forward and quickly planted a kiss on her cheeks.
It thawed her heart, began healing the wound I’d inflicted, and filled mine with relief. That kiss was the most effective expression I possessed, and it conveyed more emotions than I could possibly deliver properly at that moment.
As much as I love the fact that I can kiss my mother, I lament that I can’t tell her I love her. I can try, I can mumble things in Malayalam, start referring to associated emotions through anecdotes…But I can’t tell her, “Mom, I love you more than anyone else, even if I don’t always tell you.”
I’m reminded of this scene from Game of Thrones, where a character finds out that the Dothraki do not have a word for “thank you” in their language. At the time I loved that detail because it just highlighted the culture of the Dothraki and their way of living.
But now I wonder if that same thinking is applicable for us Malayalis. Assuming we don’t have an effective (meaning short, succinct and comprehensive) phrase in Malayalam to tell our loved ones we love them (correct me if I’m wrong), how did that happen? Is it simply because of globalization/colonization/westernization whereby we dropped Malayalam words and started using English ones?
Is “I love you” just like “current”? A replacement for “enikku ninnodu ishtamanu” and “vydhyuthi” respectively?
Twenty minutes later, as we stretched our legs at a gas station and I brushed off the crumbs of the best chicken sandwich I’d eaten in a long time, my mother messaged me on WhatsApp, asking how I was. I hit the microphone icon and began recording a voice note.
I told her how the leaves were beautiful, the countryside expansive and my Canadian hosts warm and generous. Then I remembered how she’d drive over 120 kilometres every day in order to earn a living, after which she’d have dinners and breakfasts prepared for three growing children and a husband. I remembered how left her career behind for my sake when I least deserved it.
And it kills me that I can’t tell her how much that means to me. Not in a voice note, not in a letter, not face to face.
You and I just have to live hoping they know, wishing one day the words will flow from our mouths before it’s too late.
We need a bloody phrase. Please tell me if you find it.
Else, to quote the Quora user who replied to the question “How can we tell I love you in Malayalam?” (emphasis added):
“Never ever think of saying I love you in Malayalam, unless it is for a Malayalam competition. It would be a comedy.
Anyways here are some romantic suggestions
- Enikku ninnodu ishtamanu.
- Ninne njan pranayikkunnu.
- Njan ninne snehikkunnu. (Best translation of I love you)”
I don’t think telling your parents you love them in Malayalam should be a laughing matter. Do you?
Check this space every Tuesday for more articles from Marwan Razzaq.