म से मद्रासी

Social Commentary

म से मद्रासी

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

Ihad rehearsed the line plenty of times the night before. I repeated it nervously in my head, ready for the moment I would be called upon to answer the inevitable question. This was the first time I would stand in front of a bunch of near strangers to speak in a language I did not have even a passing familiarity with. And I knew the crowd was a tough one. The moment arrived. The question was asked, I answered, and loud, crushing laughter broke out all around me.

I was three years old and only a few weeks into kindergarten school. I had arrived a year ago in cacophonous, land-locked, jagged-edged Delhi from our sea breeze-filled ancestral home in mild Kerala. I could probably deal with the physical aspect of being transplanted into a vastly different part of a subcontinent. But growing up hearing the soft, comforting sounds of Malayalam at home, the aural contrast of a new city was jarring, even for a pre-schooler. Everyday sounds were rendered strange: the call of vegetable vendors, the prayers emanating from the temple across the road, everything sounded foreign.

In my new home, my world was limited to a small flat in Karol Bagh, the Punjabi nucleus of the national capital, and my mother, who could not muster more than a few broken sentences in Hindi. And when she was able to, they came out thick with an accent which immediately signalled to the world that she was not from around these parts. She was a “Madrasi”, that adjective, simultaneously helpful and alienating, which indiscriminately lumps together the entire population of southern India reducing them to a sum of idli-sambar, dark skin, and coconut oil.

I bore that same tell-tale accent. On the morning of my “presentation”, my mother had marched me to the gates of the local play school after two days of absence, with a doctor’s letter and a one-liner committed to memory, “Ma’am mujhe bukhaar tha.” We had gone over it several times, debated whether English should be employed instead, and finally settled on those four Hindi words because my migrant mother wanted me to learn the city’s lingua franca – and settle in with the other children – as quickly as possible.

But the gig was up as soon as I opened my mouth. Bukhaar became “bukaar” and tha became the feeble “taa”. Even the teacher, an otherwise benevolent young woman, could not contain her laughter.

My love for Hindi literature was now met with mild derision at home. My decision to choose Hindi over a foreign language in high school did not go down well either.

I had been defeated by Hindi and had also had my first taste of public humiliation. I wish my memory of that event had been deceptive enough to allow me to claim that my three-year-old self silently vowed to conquer the treacherous language, as she sat down with her head held high. But I did not sit down. I was standing when the sobbing started. I was still standing when the muffled sounds grew into a loud wailing. And in my distress, I reverted back to the language which offered me some warm familiarity, Malayalam.

Hindi might be the “fourth-most first language” in the world, but it was certainly not mine.


When my father first moved to Delhi as a student in the ’70s, the nationalist fervour surrounding Hindi was at its peak. Being a south Indian who could not speak Hindi was akin to treachery. Popular opinion maintained that Madrasis were a seditious lot, who until the late ’60s had kept up an agitation against the language spoken by the majority in the country and the city. As a migrant, it wasn’t for any love of the language that my father tried to pick up Hindi. It was only the most expeditious way to integrate with the city.

But for me, what began as a vengeful, dogged pursuit, however, soon turned into a love affair. I spent my first decade as an only child and filled up my hours of solitude with indiscriminate reading. The serialised fables of Chandamama and the tragic four-legged characters of Mahadevi Varma’s universe happily co-existed with Roald Dahls and Enid Blytons in my collection. And by the time I was a teenager I had come to prefer the colourful Hindustani of Manto and the free-spirited simplicity of Prem Chand’s prose, over the bland love lives of Jane Austen’s Victorian heroines.

But my ardour for my third language was put to many tests in the world outside the library. Malayalam and English continued to hold sway in my household and I learned how to code-switch between the languages my parents could speak and an ever-evolving version of Hinglish, generously peppered with increasingly racy cuss words. The ease with which a “behenchod” or “maiyava” rolled off my tongue impressed my friends. Even though I grew up with them, my South Indian surname always rendered me an outsider – and I overcompensated by putting on a swaggering vernacular which screamed “Delhi”.

But in the early aughts, the divide between Hindi and non-Hindi speakers had taken on a different character. My parents found themselves on the side which was touted as the bright future, the new English-speaking middle class. My love for Hindi literature was now met with mild derision at home. My decision to choose Hindi over a foreign language in high school did not go down well either. I was holding on to the language of the masses that would never aid my upward social mobility, the unceasing middle-class urge to improve your station.

I appeased my parents the only way I could think of – by staying on top of the academic pyramid. I did not let my score in Hindi slip below an acceptable seventieth percentile and in my final year at school, I was on top of the leader board in Delhi. I say this with considerable pride even now, that I was awarded the Hindi Ratna Puraskar by the state government.

A few years into college, when I visited my school, my Hindi teacher told me that she often held me up as an example for her students. I felt a moment of intense pride, but with a niggling hesitation because I knew what was coming next – the postlude that I have come to expect and loathe.

“Tum Madrasi hoke bhi Hindi topper nikli,” she said. It is a statement which at once estranges me from a language I love and commends me for embracing it. I have heard so many variations of that sentiment over the years that it rarely surprises me anymore. These days, I simply respond with, “Main Dilli ki hoon behenchod”.