The Importance (and Irony) Of Studying Malayalam As Second Language

The biggest “crime” I committed during my school days involved a crumpled-up page packed with Malayalam words.

It was 5th Grade, I was a boy studying in a school in the Gulf, and the notebook in front of me seemed to be taunting my little brain. How on earth was I supposed to learn this page of Vipareetha Padangal (Antonyms)!

So I did what any idiot who thinks he’s a genius would do. I slowly tore the page out, crumpled it up and chucked it into the household bin.

I was caught two days later when my mother scrutinised the pages and found the sheared edges. In keeping with Malayalam tradition, I was administered light punishment with a chooral (bamboo cane) and learned never to avoid the inevitable.

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Was it inevitable for you too? The idea that you’d have to slog for hours every week, every month, throughout the year, every year, till you wrote your 10th Grade Board Exam Malayalam paper?

When I recently thought about Malayalam as a second language, it felt like everyone who studied in the Gulf had to undertake that enormous burden. The one that wrenched you away from your pan-Indian group of classmates, and put you squarely in the glare of the teacher who unleashed Malayalam complaints, insults, laments and quips from within the enclosed confines of the classroom.

In front of other teachers and students, she may have smiled and grinned, but when the door closed again and it was just Malayalis, the scowl came back on.

Why was she scowling? You wouldn’t understand it if you (or your parents) had decided to opt for French or Hindi or Arabic as the second language option and not Malayalam. Those were tough or easy languages to learn, but their teachers couldn’t scold you for one fact.

That you were terrible at your mother tongue.

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It makes sense that many Malayalam teachers in the Gulf would have disdain for the korach korach Malayalam that we presented in school as kids. After all, many of them came armed with teaching degrees from Kerala, into classrooms where Malayali-looking kids were speaking ( heavily accented) English, seemingly oblivious about their roots.

So the next few years were a battle, one waged with the fierce determination of generals bent on reconquering lost territory. Our minds were too Western, our tongues too straight, our handwriting too crooked. Through surprise tests, impromptu elocutions of textbooks and time-bending sermons delivered like passive-aggressive, out-of-control TED talks, they forced us to learn our mother tongue.

What for? First and foremost, so that our parents could focus on whether we were meant to be engineers or doctors or the forsaken ones, once we’d cleared the final Malayalam exam.

But the chief refrain, the main battle cry (for my language General at least) was so that all of us thalatirinja fellows in the classroom could one day read the board in front of buses in Kerala.

The image was simple yet powerful. Did we really want to be adults who landed in Kerala and had to “look upwards” (Meppott nokkinikkal)?

So we studied or rather crammed as many words as we could into our skulls. Pages upon pages of synonyms and antonyms. We learnt to supposedly analyse poetry written by classical writers of the language, until we were confident enough to pen an upanyasam with enough authority (and word count and formatting) to please an examiner.

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Was it worth it? Depends. Do you read a Malayalam newspaper today? Are the vyanjan aksharams alive and well in your mind, or have they withered away due to the passage of time?

How many of us are actively utilising the knowledge we acquired in those classes? Sure, nobody uses algebra at the grocery store today, so we shouldn’t be expected to chat with the grocer about Thunchanththu Ezhuthachan’s brilliant poetry. But the question is was it worth all the effort we put in?

I wasn’t sure of the answer until I returned to live in Kerala and got two surprising pieces of information. Turns out there are Malayalis born and brought up in Kerala who study in English medium schools and have as much luck reading the Malayalam script as the average American. Were they not warned about the severe limitations to their ability to travel in the state if they didn’t study Malayalam as a second language?

Then I saw the buses roar past and barely miss me. They had writings in English, Malayalam and even Hindi! So then what was the whole war for during childhood!

Do you feel betrayed at having to study Malayalam so intensively? I wonder if there are Malayalis in Canada who wish they’d studied French and therefore got a leg up in life, or Arabic in the Gulf so that their bosses favoured them for promotions. Should we have been more strategic in our deployment of time and effort as kids? Why did our parents tell us to learn Malayalam?

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Are we exchanging letters with them that drip with sahityam? Or was it all just so we could read some of their WhatsApp forwards and post Malayalam captioned memes?

The question isn’t whether or not we should have studied Malayalam as a second language. The question is, how important was Malayalam as a second language and does that still remain the case? Were we promised a life that was bilingual, and then turned out everyone abandoned that notion? Or are there intangible benefits to toiling over 17th and 18th-century poetry for thousands of hours?

I found my answer recently. Life conspired to prompt me to yearn for my mother tongue. So that I could speak more fluently with my loved ones back home in Kerala. So that I could assert a stronger cultural identity as a Malayali. Watching movies from the homeland wouldn’t suffice. That’s when I reached for novels by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. And discovered to my delight that reading his words made me laugh and smile because turns out a classroom with a scowling teacher can suck all the joy out of Pathummayude Aadu (Pathumma’s Goat).

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But as I read about the voraciously hungry goat, I couldn’t help but think of my teacher. Was she right all along, to have pushed us so hard? Was the delight that I experienced now due solely to the hardships I went through then?

Is it worth it to read Malayalam this way, knowing how difficult it was to acquire “sufficient” proficiency from a school system?

I’m not sure yet. Perhaps I’ll know once I’ve finished reading about what happens to the goat.

Musthafa Azeez
Indian born and raised in Qatar and currently making plans to be buried in Canada. Voracious reader, avid cinephile, self-published author of a crime novel and a freelance journalist.

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