The Plight Of An “Incomplete Malayali”

I fall under that category of people that most Malayalis love to hate. Whenever I reveal the fact that I am unable to read or write Malayalam, I’m met with a look of contempt. As well as comments like;

“Kashtam.”

“ Aiyeeee, ne okke pinne endh Malayali-a?

 “Oh, Malayalam korrachu korrachu areeyunna type aano?”

“Oh, oru velya Madhama vannirkunnu!”

To be fair, I can converse in Malayalam like pacha vellam. I know all the slangs, most of the colloquial terms, and I can even do a pretty decent Thrissur and Palghat accent. I grew up watching all the classic Malayalam movies and popular dialogues were littered across most of my conversations. So basically like child-specialist Shishupalan in Thoovalprasham says “Ningal ningalude mother tongue’il ennodu samsaarichaal, njan athey mother tongue’il reply tharaam.”

But at the same time, if you were to hand me a letter in Malayalam, I would look at you like a deer caught in the headlights. It would be an even worse scenario if I had to write a love letter in Malayalam. No, I am not a ‘Fraud Malayali’ like many have previously tagged me. I guess you could call me an “incomplete Malayali”. 

I’ve heard so many people say on various occasions that those who speak English better than their mother tongue, think of it as some sort of great achievement. This certainly is not the case for me. Yes, I have a fondness for English and I read and write in it for a living. But my lack of knowledge in Malayalam is definitely not something that I’m proud of. If anything, it has only brought about a lot of humiliation and stressful situation.

In the movie Nyangal Santhustaranu, the scene where the whole school starts taunting Abhirami when she proclaims she cannot read Malayalam made me truly feel bad for the character in that otherwise god-awful movie. 

After having learnt the mere basics of the language during the first few years of my life, I moved to the Middle East where Malayalam was no longer a part of my curriculum. Hence, my literary skills in Malayalam never quite improved after that.

Many have often tried to blame my parents for not having taken the time to teach me. In their defense, I was a terrible student and they spend all their time stressing over how to get me to barely pass in all the subjects that I was actually required to learn in school. During my trips to India, there was this one aunt who took the time to tutor me (along with her daughter in kindergarten) and get me re-familiarized with the language. 

My lack of knowledge of the language never really posed any problems until I started living in India at the age of 18. The biggest issue was travelling. I may have at one point stood right in front of a bus that clearly states in vendakka-letters “Palghat” and asked the driver where I can find the bus to Palghat. When people hand me pamphlets in Malayalam, I just frowned and stared at it long enough for it to look like I’m reading it. A few letters that I attempted to write in Malayalam to my family usually had so many blunders in it that it would often get passed around until everyone had a good laugh. 

It wasn’t until I started my first job as a fresher in Kerala that Malayalam actually came to play a big part in my life. Although I had applied for the position of English Copywriter, in my resume I inadvertently added Malayalam as one of the languages I’m well-versed in 

At the interview for this job (my very first interview ever by the way), the interviewer asked me if I know Malayalam. I said yes. I mean I speak like a true-blue Mallu and it was a job that required skill in English. How much of a difference would it have made that I couldn’t read or write it? A lot, apparently.

The next thing they did was hand me a paper- a press release written entirely in Malayalam and asked me to translate it into English right then and there. I was sent to another room where many other applicants were in the middle of the same task. I stared at the paper as I stared at the pamphlets I mentioned earlier. Glancing at the girl sitting next to me, I could see her pen moving in top speed as she scribbled away on her sheet of paper while mine was still bare. With a deep breath and a prayer, I started to read, alphabet by alphabet, just like my aunt had taught me. It must have taken me a good 10 minutes to get that first couple of words down. At the end of 30 minutes, I had written almost 2 lines. As I gave the paperback, I felt like a familiar sinking feeling in your gut you get while submitting your exam paper after having written literally nothing in it and hoping that the teacher doesn’t look at it right away. I felt terrible at having blown my very first interview over something that should have been so damn easy.

I took home that original sheet of paper that was the cause of my defeat. That night, I made both my parents sit with me and read out each line out loud from that paper while I wrote it out in the best and classiest English I could come up with. When I was done, I emailed it out to the company’s email. Long story short, I got the job.

Yeah, yeah I know I wasn’t supposed to. I was supposed to learn my lesson. At my job, whenever I had any translation work to do, I’d usually just get one of my co-workers (and once even the cleaning chechi) to read out the Malayalam lines to me while I wrote down the English version.  Even with all the help, this was one phase in my life where I read a whole lot of Malayalam, more or less to stop everyone from teasing me all the time. I remember reading this one short story in Vanitha. It was terribly dramatic and very serial like, but I was so proud at having finished reading the entire thing (which was about 6 or 7 pages long) in less than a week. 

By the time I left my job at this agency, I had learnt enough Malayalam to easily read signboards, buses, headlines, recipes and movie names. So I figured I was set. Every now and then I would painstakingly try to make sense of a meme or two in Malayalam but that has been the extent of it for a while. 

Recently I have begun dreading the fact that my daughter is going to begin learning Malayalam in school next year and there was no way I could bluff my way through it anymore. So I bought a Malayalam Aksharamala for both of us to pore over, but mostly for me. Side note – somebody really needs to update the words in these books. I have literally never heard anyone use the word “Airavadham” in any conversation. And also I feel like they included some new alphabets over the years because I do not remember it being this complicated!

But still, I’ve decided that this will be the year that I absorb this language once and for all. I will start by not ignoring those long Malayalam Whatsapp messages that my relatives send me. And not skipping the Malayalam comments under Facebook posts. I’ve also bought two Malayalam books for my kid, which I fully intend to read to her no matter how impatient she gets.  This crazy language… no matter how many short-lived acquaintances I have with it, it refuses to stop following me. That’s why I’ve decided to stop fighting it and give in. Wish me luck, suhurthukalle!

12 COMMENTS

  1. Very well written!! Being done my l schooling in the gulf ,Umma made me teach Malayalam during our school vacations back in native !& and I love ya mother tongue much and I still have friends who proudly say that they don’t know Malayalam 🙄🙄🙄!! WTH

    • You see that’s the thing. I don’t understand why people would think our lack of knowledge is something we’re proud of. Why do people assume that?? Why would anyone be proud about not knowing something?

  2. Beautifully written ! I love this mix of malayalam words added so aptly in between…
    Yeah, I am also not proud of not being literate in malayalam, but after each obstacle, I never seem to learn.

    • And I love this comment! Thank you for reading! And don’t worry, there probably will come a stage in your life where vere nivarthi illadhe, you’ll have to learn..

  3. Haha very relatable….did most of my schooling in delhi and by the time I was back I was given the option to choose hindi or malayalam and galdly took hindi.

    I didn’t have any regrets untill all these memes started coming in Malayalam. 🙁

  4. The memes are the worst.. but what about these random shot of letters written in malayalam in movies.. They don’t even give you enough time to piece the words together to make sense out of it.

    Also, thanks for reading! 🙂

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