In the age of the internet, where technology has become a great leveller, a Malayalam proficiency test is the only way to tell whether a person has been born and raised in Kerala. Many of us not privileged enough to have had an upbringing in God’s Own Country cannot read or write in our mother tongue. This is largely due to the fact that Malayalam is not a language that is formally studied in schools outside Kerala.
A close family member once chided me for being able to read Balzac in French and Pushkin in Russian, but not having a remotely close ability to read Bashir or MT in the original. There was always the excuse of French being my second language in school, but with Russian or Italian (my favourite language), this judgemental yet well wishing relative did have a case.
In our increasingly capitalist society, the whole concept of putting in 400 to 500 hours into learning a new language is linked to the potential financial benefits of such efforts. Mandarin Chinese is in huge demand worldwide and this will only grow as China becomes the largest economy in the world. Spanish is also popular with young people in India since it can get them access to emerging economies in South America. But money should not be the only consideration for learning a language, especially not one’s own native language.
Besides having proven neurological benefits like helping improve one’s memory and intelligence, and lowering risks of atrophy, brain ageing and illnesses like dementia, languages open up an entirely new world. For a Malayali who was raised speaking the language, learning requires far less of an effort. For the non-trained eye, the alphabets initially look daunting and the fancy words used by learned Malayalis are intimidating, but there isn’t a greater pleasure than reading a fine piece of literature in the original language.
Becoming fluent in Malayalam and being able to read and write is the best way to reconnect with our roots. This is, however, easier said than done. For starters, Malayalis outside Kerala are keen that their children learn Bharatanatyam, classical music and other forms of art and culture, but the language itself seems to be treated as a stepchild. Self-learning works for those who are determined enough, but as someone who has struggled with Chinese, while using a popular software, I can account for the fact this is not easy. Given how busy many adults are, they may just not have the energy and patience to teach their children Malayalam. There has to be some kind of structured and effective initiative that is supported by the Kerala government to effectively spread the language.
When searching online I was happy to come across The Malayalam Mission, which was launched in 2009 by the Government of Kerala's Department of Culture. Its website says the mission has offices in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai and hundreds of language centres both within and outside India. However, it's next to impossible to find out where these centres are in Mumbai! The official website does not have any information in English! So how is a Malayali who cannot read Malayalam supposed to find out about where he or she can learn? If there is information in English, shouldn’t the word English be written somewhere? There’s also a gmail address listed on the website! This reeks of a lack of professionalism. Other websites that mention Malayalam classes in Mumbai either haven’t been updated in years or list email addresses that don’t work.
Most Malayalis love Malayalam, but are not lingua-fanatics like people from some other parts of India. There was no controversy about Hindi announcements and signs on the Kochi Metro. Migrants from Orissa and Bengal are not forced to learn Malayalam or threatened with dire consequences if they refuse. However, unless proper efforts are made to promote the language, Malayalam will lose many speakers over the next few generations. If we don’t give our mother tongue the respect it deserves, we can’t realistically expect others to respect it. Rather than imposing Malayalam or being unduly proud of it, we need to celebrate it the way Urdu and Bengali are celebrated. There are enough young people who want to learn the former because of its poetry, and the latter thanks to the work of geniuses like Tagore. I dream of a day when a middle class Malayali outside Kerala can read the works of ONV with as much ease as his or her Russian counterpart expat can read Pushkin in the original.