Sometimes during a conversation, attention drifts away from the topic of interest, to something very mundane. It can be a question, sometimes an exclamation. On rare occasions, it has been a compliment and rarer still, it has come to me as an insult, served hot and garnished well.
It is the ubiquitous issue of the ” mother tongue”. So where do you come from? Innocent question, which deserves an equally innocent answer. Apparently not clear enough. But what is your mother tongue? In a nice mood, I say Tamil, on the days I miss my Appa, especially. In a caustic mood, I say Telugu, that’s what I grew up speaking. If you catch me in a weird mood, I’d probably say Hindi or English.I am surprised at how such an innocent question could always catch me off-guard, leaving me tense, nostalgic, lost and identity-less, all at the same time.
As a child, Tamil was what I spoke at home. Just at home. I learnt to read and write, appreciate poetry and speak it, all thanks to Appa. Everywhere else it was Telugu or Hindi. Adolescence did not prove to be a big problem with the what re, no ya, cool re! what only fad keeping me far away from an identity crisis.
Marriage brought with it some issues. It was difficult to identify myself with a typical Tamil family, they actually lived in a town that spoke Tamil, and not some “X” language! And I realized none of my Telugu friends identified with me either! To them I was always a ” tamilian”, ” aravvallu”. Where do I go from here, I remember thinking. It was too late to go back to one of these cultures exclusively. I was equally addicted to Yugaadi Pachadi and Nei Pongal. My language was peppered with illai and ledu in equal measure. I enjoyed ramadasa krithis and oothukkaadu venkatasubbaiyer songs. To add to all the confusion, I was teaching French too. It would be foolish to believe that language has no effect on the way we live. So where exactly would I be?
Over the past few years, I have jumped at occasions to speak in Telugu, spoken Tamil in ways that my Appa would be proud of, and ache to speak Kannada like a native. I look for Tamil from certain people, from whose lips it sounds like my Appa’s speaking. My heart longs for Telugu’s sweetness and dwells in Tamil’s rhythmic beauty. Kannada’s prosody, so unlike so many other languages I’ve heard, attracts me. Yet, my steps towards her are babyish. Am I afraid of losing myself once more? Is it is a subconscious desire to belong somewhere, no matter where, just to feel terra firma? Or am I trying to defend my own slowness in picking up the language?
I wouldn’t know. One thing’s for sure: I am neither a tamilian nor a telugu. I am neither south-Indian nor north-Indian. I am alone at the moment, but I definitely am not lonely. Think of it this way : A child asked to choose between his mother and father, always chooses both. Just like I’d always choose both Telugu and Tamil, both of which make me who I am today….