Recently my sis in law mentioned about a couple of books she bought en route home from her brief holiday at Ooty.  One of them was “Mrityunjaya, The Death Conqueror: The Story of Karna” by Sivaji Savanta. I promptly requested her for a loan of the book once she was done with reading it as it is one on my reading list. That’s when I came to know that it was a Malayalam and not English translation of the Marathi original.

“Oh no!” I said disappointed, “I will pass and wait till I find an English translation.”

On hearing me, mother joked,

“Don’t let the Malayalees hear you say that! They will have something uncomplimentary to say.”

I guess, she did say that in a lighter vein, but I am not sure she looked at what I said in an entirely kind spirit. After all we are true blood Malayalees ourselves and to top it, we are also descendants of one of the Mahakavis (Great Poets) of the language.

I am certainly proud of my great grandfather and his achievements and happy to belong to the beautiful coastal state of Kerala. But I fail to understand why this or anything at all should in any way influence my personal choice of language.

Before the language chauvinists jump to erroneous conclusions and at my throat too in the bargain, let me say that I do know to read and write Malayalam very well indeed. It had been my second language in school and also for my graduate course. I read Malayalam magazines and novels during my growing up years along with English ones. I conversed (and still do) in Malayalam to near and dear ones as also to others not so dear or near. I have even got a Malayalam poem, albeit a silly one, to my credit, written long back as a school going kid.

And yet, I am quite unapologetic in saying, I prefer to read and write in English.

Is that a crime?? Apparently one would think so, by the stunned reaction I get, to this admission.

Now the topic of ‘mother tongue’ is a touchy subject anywhere and everywhere. There are people out there who are ready to beat up and even go to the extreme of killing each other over it. They think their own mother tongue is the best and the rest are just dust. Excuse me, I beg to differ. In the event that I were to grow up without ever hearing a word of my mother tongue, I could still be expected to turn out into a pretty decent human being.

So, personally my opinion on mother tongues is on these lines: Everyone has a mother and mothers have tongues. So what is so special about any particular one?? This I know is blasphemy to the language chauvinists. But then, language chauvinism bores me to tears.

I was born in Kerala by some providence or let us say even by design of Fate. Does that mean I should at all costs like the language of the state above all else?? Why look askance at the preference for another language putting it at par with a committed person who has trespassed and is having an affair??

The way things are, it does not take much imagination to realize what the situation would be if I had been born in say for example, the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. Much the same would be pounded into me, how Tamil is THE best. What if it were Karnataka?? Then I would be forced to sing paeans to Kannada, to Telugu in Andhra, Marathi in Maharashtra… you get the drift, don’t you?

I don’t know if you notice the pattern. It is very clear to me though. It is on the lines of the Malayalam saying, “Kaakkaykku than kunjum ponkunju.”  which loosely translates to, “Even to the crow its child is the golden one.” Just a case of, ‘It is mine, hence it’s beautiful.’ Isn’t it?? Easy enough to understand why each and everyone thinks their language is sweet, sweeter than the sweetest of honey in fact. Hmm… makes me wonder what about those of us who prefer salty, sour, bitter or spicy?? Are we to be left out in the cold??

The preference to read, write and speak English is grudgingly accepted as inevitable by the mother tongue-lovers (make that the mother-tongue-obsessed), as long as the supremacy of said mother tongue is acknowledged. But, if you were frank (like me) and say that to you, languages are just that, languages, a means of communication evolved over time, and that out of the many (each one of which has its own beauty), you have the freedom to choose one you are comfortable with, you draw flak.

Why should a simple thing like my penchant for a language make fellow humans all hot and bothered?? Freedom I thought was my birthright and that the freedom entailed the right to declare freely, any language I favored. Or is freedom merely hogwash?? Does it come with strings attached?? You belong to this particular geographical location; so you are magnanimously bequeathed with the right to like, love and adore the language of the region and no other.

Is the connection to our mother tongue something similar to the caste system of yore?? If you were born into a particular caste, you had to stick to what that caste specialized in and had no option of doing anything else. Similarly, am I left with no choice but sing praise to the language of the region I belong to by reason of birth??

During the growing up years of my children I had relatives and friends sanctimoniously ask me if they knew their mother tongue. (Thankfully, now that the kids have grown up the nosy-parkers have stopped and moved on to more interesting topics and ask, ‘Will your son come home with an American bride??’). Though a little taken aback when the children replied to them in fluent Malayalam, they wouldn’t let well enough alone and insist on giving me unasked for advice to teach the kids to read and write their mother-tongue. Like I told someone a while back, honestly, I couldn’t care less if the kids spoke in Kiswahili (as of now they don’t) as long as they remained good human beings. We all have our priorities and that unquestionably is mine.

Once a boy told me contemptuously, of a couple he met while traveling, who were conversing in English throughout, though it was obvious that they were Malayalees.

Show offs, he muttered in disgust. They feel it is beneath them to speak their mother tongue. Pah!!

“Or perhaps, they are just comfortable speaking in English…” I said to him. “Besides, isn’t it their choice??

People talk, write blogs about how we should speak and encourage our indigenous languages. Of course that’s all fine, very good in fact. But, what I have never been able to understand is why they have to put down English or ridicule those speaking it to put across their point. Why do we have to criticize to popularize?? Does the language you want to make popular have so little intrinsic value that you have to make fun of those trying to speak (may be broken) in English?? Why seek to build something positive using negativity as steps to climb upon?? Why not be the change you want to see and set an example for others to follow, but of course without wearing the  ‘look at me, I am such a saint for speaking my mother tongue’ halo which is such an irritating sight.

Why this hatred for English, a language that has helped us in many ways?? Is it because it is the legacy of the British, from whom we had to wrest our independence?? Grow up folks, they are long since gone. It is just us now. Besides, we are all happily using their legacies in so many other fields and ways. This attitude of nitpicking about English-speakers only sounds churlish and childish.

Opting for a language other than the mother tongue, does not make anyone a bad human being. And that’s saying a lot considering the intolerance and holier than thou attitude of the mother-tongue-obsessed. If you think this is a rant, yes indeed it is. Why can’t we live and let live?? Besides how can you forget, every language in this world is the mother tongue of someone or otherSo how does it matter which language you speak??