A few days ago, on what was an unusually cold early October evening (even by Russian standards) I met a group of relatively young intellectuals in the heart of Moscow. This group meets once a month in a café to discuss all things related to literature. Few things evoke as much pride in Russians than the country’s great literary traditions. Many foreigners actually learn Russian just to be able to read the works of Russian literary giants in the original.
When we began to discuss the country’s poets, I cited parts of a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, known as the “poet of the Caucasus.” Impressed with the relative ease with which I quoted the poet, one of my friends asked me to cite a few Malayalam verses. I felt totally checkmated at that point. Honesty was the best approach and I told the surprised group that it was easier for me to cite verses in Russian, English or even Urdu than it was in Malayalam, since I had actually never read a single poem in my native language.
Russians can simply not comprehend the concept of an educated person being able to read a non-native language better than his or her own. A miniscule minority of Malayalis raised outside Kerala have actually studied in a Malayalam-medium school. Let’s face it- there are highly limited economic benefits or career prospects for people who choose to study in a Malayalam-medium school outside Kerala (even if one exists).
I also suspect that modern middle class Malayali families outside Kerala don’t put much emphasis on their children reading Malayalam literature. One of the best ways for non-resident Keralite families to bond is to watch Malayalam films together. Unfortunately this medium is falling prey to the invasion of English terms. While cinema is useful for those who want to get the basics of the language, it in no way arms a person with the skills to master literature.
Russian families abroad hire tutors for their children and ensure that the country’s fine literature is passed down to the next generation. After my rather uncomfortable recent incident in Moscow, I have made it a point to get my Malayalam up to the level of my Russian.
As someone who has studied languages such as Italian and French from the very basics right up to the level where I can read books in those languages, I am fairly well versed with what it takes to achieve mastery in a language. The big advantage for me is that I can speak fluently and understand conversational Malayalam without any problem. But when it comes to the literary language, I have a mountain of a task. This is going to involve a disciplined, systematic and planned approach. Options include enrolling for a course at an open university. There’s nothing like the concept of exams to force one to take studies seriously. Getting proper certification also helps reinforce one’s confidence, although I know of plenty of people who have “advanced diplomas” in European languages and cannot manage to go beyond two or three sentences in them.
Another idea I am flirting with is living in a relatively remote village in Kerala, albeit one with wifi access. Surroundings play a major role in complete mastery of a language. Given how much Malayalis read, one way to improve my literary skills would be to discuss foreign literature with people in villages. I’d be fascinated with the translations of Russian words featured in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevskiy and Maxim Gorky.
As is the case with any goal in life, a time frame is important. I am optimistic about being able to appreciate Malayalam poetry and high-level literature in two years. Although no one judged me on that cold autumn night in Moscow for being a novice when it came to Malayalam literature, as a writer and Malayali, I do want to make sure that I reach a level in Malayalam that I won’t have to face such an embarrassing situation again. In the meantime, I welcome tips and suggestions from regular readers of this column. Feel free to reach out via email or social media.