A few very-close relatives and friends of mine have settled in the US with their families. But all are staunchly patriotic, as far as their home country is concerned. They are quite determined and proud of retaining their Indian identity, or rather Malayali identity in spite of staying away from the Indian soil for the past 15 to 20 years. Every two years they come to India to visit their family members, who are quite proud that their children have not been influenced by western/American cultures. While they speak they care not to utter a single word of English. Retaining of Malayali culture and language is still on their priority. All my US-settled-cousins have school going children right now. They go to school in America. They hear Malayalam language, their mother-tongue only at home. Otherwise, wherever they go it’s only English they hear, they see and they speak. And not-so-surprisingly their children speak the perfect American accent. At home too these children (between siblings) speak English. The absolute fact is, even though Malayalam was to be strictly spoken at home, English was always in the air.  After speaking English for hours in the schools it was quite a complicated matter to switch to another language at home. And thus, for the growing-up children, Malayalam becomes a secondary language.
But for my cousins, English represents a foreign culture. They don’t want to give in to it totally. However, they and we never understand and realize the absolute facts and complications that are inherent in such situations. My query in this matter came to an end when I got hold of Jumpha Lahiri’s very recent work In Other Words. She’s a well-known award-winning fiction writer.  In Other words is her debut non-fiction, and a memoir in nature. I found the work quite interesting and deeply inspiring, especially where she narrates her obsession to learn a foreign language, Italian. She uses different, striking metaphors to describe her urge to learn the language as well as the experiences she underwent trying to grasp and reproduce the finer nuances of the new language. Besides narrating her struggles with learning Italian, the book is, for that matter, written in Italian; translated by Ann Goldstein into English.
My query to understand the immigrants’ (America and elsewhere) way of life and their inner conflict to retain their mother tongue and home culture is acutely understood from Lahiri’s narrative about her past. She delves into her roots, and chronicles about the shift from mother-tongue Bengali, handed down to her by her parents, to a foreign language-English. She was one of those many Indians, whose parents moved to the US to settle down during the early 70’s. Bengali was her primary language and she was quite comfortable with it, and of course deeply attached to it.
Lahiri recounts how Bengali took a step backward once she started schooling in America. Gradually English becomes her dominant language-she calls “English as a stepmother”. Her parents wanted her to speak only Bengali with them. She realizes she “had to speak both languages extremely well: the one to please her parents, the other to survive in America”. She felt Bengali and English didn’t get along; “they were incompatible adversaries, intolerant of each other”.
The more she read and learned English, the more she identified with it. Gradually, she “feels ashamed to speak Bengali in front of her American friends. She was ashamed of feeling ashamed. It was impossible to speak English without feeling detached from her parents. At the same time she saw the consequences of not speaking English perfectly. She saw the wall that her parents faced in America almost every day”.
The strange fact is that Americans are completely oblivious of the language that the Indians spoke at home – be it Bengali, Malayalam or any other Indian language.
In Lahiri English and Bengali jousted for primacy until she discovered Italian, which entrances her. She discovers there was no need to learn that language. No familial, cultural, or social pressure. She realizes that “studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in her life between English and Bengali”. It comes purely from her desire, her labour. She gives up reading any books in English, gives up, also, writing and even speaking in English. In Other Words is more or less about her exile, the journey of Lahiri seeking a new voice.
Coming back to the immigrant’s inner conflicts about retaining their regional identity, I realized that there’s no concrete solution. Much water has flown and the flow continues…


8 thoughts on “EXILE – FINDING A NEW SOUND

  1. Interesting read but I beg to differ. The constant fight for supremacy among languages is mainly of our own making. Being in India and outside Kerala during my childhood. It was English, Malayalam and Hindi that were spoken at home, not in that order of priority though. It used to be Malayalam with my parents, Hindi with my brother earlier. Now it has changed English with my brother. Our notion that culture will be protected only if the language is merely a notion. Being comfortable in your mother tongue will help you being more in sync with your culture. Its just the icing on the cake, not the cake. But then some people scoop the icing and leave the cake 🙂


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