by Chithira Vijayakumar
I learnt to read Malayalam the easy way: by lying on my grandmother’s stomach, brown skin painted with the silverfish of my mother’s and my uncle’s births. By listening to her read the daily newspapers out to me.
I listened lying on the pleats of her starched cotton sari. I listened through the warmth of her skin, warmth like she had swallowed a thousand suns. By the time I was three, I was coaxing my tongue around headlines such as ‘Prathipakshakakshikal Rajyasabha Niraskarichu’. I was reading before I could understand what I was reading.
It wasn’t my doing; it was my grandmother, rolling the words up in her palm into delicious morsels, then placing them gently on my tongue.
One year, my school in Trivandrum in Kerala, India decided that we would be fined if we were found speaking in Malayalam. 50 paise for every word. I would later find out this was an obscenely common practice in many educational institutions throughout India.
Well-meaning teachers policed our thoughts and watched hawk-eyed for us to slip up, as we inevitably would. When we did, we’d be ordered into staff rooms where the offense would be written into our school diaries. “Speaking in Malayalam. 7 words. Fine 50ps * 7 = Rs. 3.50.”
Disconcertingly, it wasn’t just the teachers who were listening in. Other students, class leaders, prefects, and house captains were encouraged to spy; to say in perfect English, “I’m going to tell so-and-so teacher what you just said.”
I was one of the people designated to catch offenders. And I did, but I would speak in Malayalam to people whom I was fairly certain wouldn’t tell on me. When caught, some students reacted with rage, some with a shrug, while others would plead, “Please, please, please, just once, just once, don’t tell.”
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So, Malayalam became something we smuggled around, quickly stuffed into pockets or swallowed before we were caught. It turned our hands and mouths red, and stained the pockets of our clothes. It bled into the whites of our shirts and grew into angry blotches that our mothers and grandmothers struggled to wash off. All the words we couldn’t speak collected behind our eyes and made them swell; all the things we couldn’t say rotted between our teeth and filled the school corridors with their stench.
Another inherent unfairness was that I, like a handful of others, had grown up in worlds suffused with English. So the coloniser’s tongue came easily to me, taking root and blossoming effortlessly in the particular soil of bodies born to families that had leather-bound dictionaries in every room and memberships to English libraries. Both parents working on Ph.Ds., grandparents who were professors and journalists. None of it had come easily, of course, but there it was.
But there were many at my school for whom English was a little more distant, whose parents didn’t have time in between jobs to sit down and practice with them. These students struggled more, were fined more, were shamed more.
I cannot remember when the fines stopped. I call my mother up to find out. She says that a few parents, including her, had spoken to the school’s principal about why this must end. I still do not know if that was what had stopped it.
In May 2012, a school near my hometown fined 103 students Rs.1000 each and expelled 80 of them for speaking in Malayalam. That is 2,000 times the fine we paid a little more than 10 years ago.
We continue to penalise our own existence, we levy sharper interest rates on our own blood and bones. We continue to imagine that which is ours – the colour of our skin, our accents, the stories of our people, our dreams – as not good enough, as something to erase. As dangerously expendable.
Going to an English medium school has given me enormous privileges, as has my middle class existence. I am allowed to access a few more spoils of the war, the same war that continues to crush many of us underfoot.
I like to imagine that I have reclaimed English for myself, that I can deploy it as ammunition into the mouths of empires that forced it down our throats more than 400 years ago; that it will find its way into their bellies and rupture them violently, irreparably. On good days, I even believe it.
I think about it here, about how those empires have mutated, about what it means to confront them.
I think about it in this town, heavy with the promise of rain, halfway across the world from places I think of as home. I look at the mouths of my lovers. I look at the shapes they make and I want to say: You with the tongue as sharp as coral reef, will you ever make meaning the way I make meaning? And you, the one with the turquoise nose stud that catches the grey light of day, what parts of me do you hear? And you, whose long, dark hair I cut with blunt scissors and laughter the last time there was a full moon, what would you want to say to me if I spoke your language?”
And what of all those who do speak my tongue, but do not understand a word I say?
My grandmother left us all more than a decade ago. When I’m home, I try and lie back in the very same chair the very same way she used to, legs raised, a Malayalam newspaper held open, like the wings of cranes in paddy fields at dawn. I try to read, but now I understand too much and I find myself stopping too soon.
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Chithira Vijayakumar is a queer(er) brown(er) writer from Kerala, India who likes to think about decolonisation. They are currently working on their master’s degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, making them a short-term settler on Kalapuya land.
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