By Karthik Venkatesh Feb. 21, 2017
I have many mother languages. In my case, these words have an amazing power to arouse, to incite, to communicate – and equally, to confuse and obfuscate.
am the son of many mother tongues.
It has always been that way. I came from a community that was a product of two cultures. In my blood flows hard-boiled Tamilness and its millennium-old splendour, along with the lyricism of the Kerala countryside. A mishmash of Tamil and Malayalam drips off my tongue every time I speak with my sibling, my parents, and the many relatives who constitute a universe that floats into view only during the odd family gathering.
This mishmash is a slithering snake that can go this way or that, depending on whether I am in Tamil Nadu or Kerala. Equally, it can remain right where it is if I live elsewhere. For a while during my childhood, when I lived in Kochi, the tongue went the Malayalam way. Then we moved to Chennai and it went the Tamil way. And then we moved to Bangalore, it came back to its state of equilibrium.
By the time I was 13, my mother tongue had changed thrice. Bangalore added a new tongue to the melting pot. What the locals call “Kasturi Kannada”. Kasturi stands for sandalwood and the Kannada’s sweet fragrance now immersed deep into the tongue I began to speak. Relatives from Chennai and Kochi were perplexed at the strange new twist to the tale. But, that’s the way it went.
Matters were compounded further by my convent school, occupied by more than a few coconuts i.e., “forever England” types, brown on the outside and white on the inside. Flawless diction was drilled into us with more than a little help from the cane. There, I learned to speak English in a faux British accent adding one more layer to my thrice-padded-over tongue.
As a result of these moves and other lab experiments, I was light years away from where I’d started by the time I was 20. My tongue slipped more than it spoke. Swore when it had to sing. Stammered when it had to speak. Though I “knew” four tongues, I was mostly tongue-tied.
But there was more to come. My two years in Manipal, a little university town near Mangalore accorded me a smattering of Tulu. A few words, a few expressions. I was five languages down. My tongue was now headed irrevocably down the gibberish road.
After being hopelessly out of tune for a few months, Hindi deigned to perch itself on my tongue.
The years passed. I was now adept at smiling my way through situations. I spoke but seldom and then too after I had deliberated on each word. It was a strange kind of decision-making that needed to be done. The spoken word possesses such power to arouse, to incite, to communicate and in my unique case, to confuse and obfuscate. Words from the various tongues that I knew merged into one sentence in my tongue. Unending confusion was the result.
In this state, I went on yet another journey. To New Delhi, the capital, no less. All my tongues were of little use in that ancient city which marched to the Hindi beat. After being hopelessly out of tune for a few months, Hindi deigned to perch itself on my tongue. Being alone helped. In six months, I was speaking and singing it, like it was, well… one of my mother tongues. Hindi had such a gregarious effect on me, that for the first time in my life, I became rather talkative.
Thanks to this new hat I was wearing, and the effects it was having on me, I became friends with a person from Punjab. We married soon after. And so began another tongue-twisting tale. The Punjabi that she spoke more than fascinated me. And when she quoted from the scriptures and from Amrita Pritam, I was tongue-tied not because I couldn’t speak, but because I didn’t want to. I only wanted to listen.
I have to learn this tongue, I swore in all my tongues.
We moved to Punjab soon and the opportunity presented itself. The Punjabi I learnt in the state contained within it, both the lyrical quality of its sufi poetry, as well as the earthy quality of its dusty streets. One could alter the radio station as one wished. For a decade, I drank deep of this Pierian Spring, drawn from its five rivers. In consciously learning a language for the first time in my muddled life, I began to revisit all the previous languages that I had been exposed to. I could now move past the obstacles and the superficialities of my earlier encounters with them. I saw them for what they were.
A thousand miles from where they were spoken, I realised the beauty of all my mother tongues. I read them and re-discovered them. I sorted them out in my head and on my tongue. In doing so, I understood how they were similar and how they were different. Most of all, I realised they were all special and they were all mine.
Punjab is now in my past. I have now moved back to Bangalore. But I am very different from the tongue-tied boy who had left it 15 years ago. I move smoothly from one tongue to another.
Sometimes – only sometimes – I speak with a forked tongue. But most of the time, the words from all my tongues are on the tip of my tongue.
After teaching history to high-school students for more than a decade and reading their answer scripts, Karthik decided that he'd prefer to write it instead. So he writes on history and also edits other people's writing.