Between the ages of six and eight, I lived in Kerala and spoke little besides Malayalam. The next time I returned, it was for two weeks when I turned 20. My first day back, I perched on the edge of a teak-wood seat, little comprehending how my aunts and uncles had become this old. They in turn couldn’t understand why I refused to rest my head on the convent-crocheted antimacassar slung over the back of the seat. “What is this American style, not a drop of oil in her hair, dry like coconut husk, fit only for scrubbing pots and pans?” they asked, not unaffectionately. “Sit back.”
I leaned back into my seat but was no less uncomfortable as I waited for the conversation to move from me to others in the room, from English to Malayalam.
It did and I returned to my childhood clambering over this same furniture, then sized for circus antics. I drifted out the window to the mango tree laden with fruit so ripe the ground beneath was wet from a rain of juice. This tree with its low-hanging branches was never allowed, in the impatience of our childhood, to produce anything but fruit hard, tart and green. In my memory, my grandfather stood under the tree, shaking his cane at us cousins who ran, puckered mouths unable to answer his scolding. I strained to hear him but his voice, silent these many years, only yielded more silence. Malayalam was no more my language. Not even in memory.
I drifted back to the room and its babble and drifted away again. I knew from my experience negotiating the airport, all of its formalities confined to Malayalam, that straining to understand would yield nothing but a massive headache. Then I had the sense that equally alive in this drawing room was the possibility of heartache. When despite myself I grasped the occasional word, the experience was akin to the shipwrecked sailor chancing, somewhere mid-ocean, on a single rock, ground not wide enough to stand on, much less to inhabit and build a life on.
But my drifting had the unfortunate effect of rendering me stupid. Even when the conversation returned to English and back to me—“Mridu-Mridu. Someone shake that girl awake”—I was too long gone to make sense of what was being asked of me. I left Kerala, leaving my relatives with the sense that both my hair and my mental acuity left something to be desired.
I returned to English, a home with many rooms, great and small, richly furnished to reflect my every contradictory need—for simplicity, for sophistication, for transparency, for artifice, for full expression of myself. But somewhere, I now had the sense, was another home, and wandering in its poorly appointed rooms the flickering intelligence of someone hopeful yet of being shaken awake.
Another 15 years would go by before I found my way again to Kerala. Following directions I had received over the phone, I asked the driver to pull over at the junction of the highway and the main street running through the sleepy village of Chemmalamattom. Yes, the barbershop was there and so was the assortment of storefronts. Garlands of rubber chappals festooned the front of the dry goods store. A fine dust hung in the air, so pure it would have been taken for snow elsewhere. But here it announced a rice mill. Outside, there were girls in long skirts and blouses, hair liquid and loose, and women in nightgowns, sparse hair knotted, waiting for rice to be ground in quantities good for one or two breakfasts worth of appam or puttu; any more would result in the ignominy of eating stale as city dwellers are forced to. Every other storefront had bananas for sale—yellow and finger-length, red and rotund, green so acid, streaks of black throughout were welcome relief for the eye. But peering past the bananas I saw that these stores contained all manner of hodgepodge, from slingshots strung with rubber tapped from the trees next door, to bolts and buckets, watches and dolls, made in China.
Notwithstanding the instructions about the barber shop, the mill and the general goods store, this junction so like all the other junctions interrupting the bleeding of one village into the next would have been easy to drive right on through had my driver not known how to read the sign: Chemmalamattom. The curl-cues of the Malayalam lettering on this sign were no more recognisable to me than was my cousin waving to me from the roadside, there to escort me onward in my journey.
A short while later, I was using the Malayalam I had been diligently practicing back in Portland, Oregon. “I am your mother,” I told my new two-year-old baby as she shrank from me. The social worker set her down and stepped back from us. My cousin looked soberly on. No longer possessed of the luxury of embarrassment, sentences stumbled from me, as awkward as they were rehearsed: “Don’t be afraid, daughter. I’m here to take you home.” I pulled my sons, aged six and three, forward and now she, their new sister, stepped forward as well. She put her hand out for the ball they held out to her. They unscrewed the top from a bottle and blew bubbles that she chased about the room. All three spoke in the language all of us speak in childhood. It is a language that is free of the fear of being misunderstood, a language that trusts itself to be understood.
Illustration: Andrew Macara/ The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images
I tried again. “Daughter,” I held my arms out to her, “I am your mother. Will you come to me?” She was afraid. But she was also brave. A half-hour later she allowed me to pick her up. I am not sure if it was just before or just after that it poured from me, dozens, then hundreds of words. Malayalam words. First the language of nouns as everything leapt out at me—“door” and “hair clip” and “outside” and “sun” and “ball” and “hand” and “mouth”. I spoke these nouns to her desperate for her to understand that if I were not yet her mother it was not because I didn’t share her language, not because I couldn’t know her in the language in which she knew herself. And then, I wanted her to know that I was knowable.
We spoke in the Malayalam of games—oliche-kande (literally hiding-seeing, but really peek-a-boo)—and the Malayalam of half-remembered fragments of nursery rhymes. I told of coaxing a dove to my hand with a promise not only of milk and bananas but also of payasam, a sweet not found in English. Some nights into our new life together as a family came a lullaby, entire, intact. I sang it to her in the voice of someone who had sung it to me.
Malayalam didn’t return suddenly. But neither did it return slowly. Malayalam wasn’t there. And then it was: the jagged rock I had been clinging to pushed up by some upheaval in the ocean floor, revealing itself as ground my daughter and I could stand on together. Such things are a long time coming. And arriving, they do so as a force for change.
Shortly on the heels of this upheaval came the upheaval of writing. In writing I tried out the idea that what I had experienced was an expansion of myself, as if my familiar home had revealed itself to contain one more room. But where had that room been or where I? How could it be a room if it was also a rock? Years on, I was still struggling to understand the experience when I heard the Italian writer Claudio Magris speak. “Every journey,” he said “is a return.” Yes, I said to myself. I know what that means to me. I have been journeying all this while, and all of it is indeed a returning. Everything unknown was revealing itself as already known. Writing was the way to remember what I had forgotten; it was the journey that allowed me to return to myself.
I began work on a novel set in Kerala and the United States. I feared the imbalance between the years I spent in Kerala and the decades in the US would result in an imbalanced novel. I thought to undertake some corrective research. But it was the US I found difficult to grapple with. Kerala wrote itself in my novel, a place both parochial and cosmopolitan, a place as familiar in its paradoxical nature as my many contradictory selves.
My daughter lost her Malayalam soon after we returned to the US. When she was old enough to realise what it was she had lost, she began the lament, “But why did I do that?” “That” was her refusal to answer me in the Malayalam I spoke to her our first year in the US. “How?” she asks and the story has been repeated so often she knows already: one evening as I turned to her at the dinner table and asked her if she would like a glass of water, she tipped her chin at me and repeated my words.“Vellam,” she said defiantly, “what is vellam?” That was how she left her language.
I think of my cousin waiting for me at the junction that day and it is with something like confidence I tell her, when you are a grown-up you can go to your godparents in Kerala. Devasi Uncle and Josie Auntie will teach you Malayalam. I picture my cousin, her Devasi Uncle, waiting for her at the same junction. But my daughter has only just turned 11. She has a long way to journey so she can return.
In the meantime, I make a pilgrimage to Kerala almost every year with my partner and three children. It is the same pilgrimage my parents undertook in the first years of their new lives as migrants to Delhi, one they gave up only when they migrated again—this time to the US. The old Kerala-Karnataka Express is now the Kerala Express. We share our compartment. One year it is with a couple, bank officers, and their new baby. Another year it is with two soldiers, who sleep for nearly the entire way, the sleep of the young and exhausted. When they wake, they turn to me with the same question with which the bank officers opened the conversation, “Native place?” I am glad to be recognised. I imagine I can hear this question being asked in the next compartment and throughout the train and back in time to when my parents answered it, naming my grandfather’s home in Trivandrum.
In a journey of more than 50 hours, we note all the changes that tourists are told signify the crossing from North to South India—wheat fields give way to rice fields; the puddle of yellow in our meal tray from the Railway is no longer described as dal, it is now sambar. But what we have forgotten to expect and now cheer is the man with the trays of banana boli, who comes on board as we cross into northern Kerala. Soon afterward, we run out of water in the bathroom and my children weary of climbing from the lower to the upper bunks and back down again. This is as it was in my childhood. The antidote is one forbidden to me in my childhood. I let the children hold on to me as we stand in the doorway of our coach and thrust our faces into the whipping wind. Ahead and ahead, many hours ahead is Trivandrum. There I will return to a language in which I am the articulate six-year-old, at home in the life of the older, wiser, inarticulate me.
Appeared in the July 2013 issue as “Kerala Express”.
works as a community organizer at the Deepalaya Community Library Project. She is the author of "Bicycle Dreaming" (Speaking Tiger, 2016), "Not Only the Things That Have Happened" (Harper Collins India, 2012). Her short story collection "If It Is Sweet" (Westland-Tranquebar, 2009) won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize.
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