Some years ago, I was walking into the Conference Room in Vidhana Soudha to cover the press conference of the Chief Minister, H.D.Kumaraswamy, while speaking on the cell with a cousin. I spoke in Tamil, and after a few minutes I hung up, and found myself a chair. A journalist from another newspaper slid into the seat next to mine, said hello and asked, in Kannada, “Madam how come you are speaking the Konga bhasha? ” I replied that’s because I was a Konga. He had the grace to blush, and mumbled his apologies but he was also surprised to learn I am not Kannadiga.
I told him there was no need to apologize, as he had no way of knowing this , but couldn’t resist telling him that I was quite conversant in 75 per cent of South Indian languages. At home the lingua franca is Tamil, but it’s simply impossible not to pick up some Telugu when you have seven uncles and six aunts who were born and raised in Nellore, and argued ( they call it conversation) in the only language in which mythological movies must be watched. My second language at school was Kannada, and it was also generally the language in which I played, but there never was any occasion to learn even a smattering of Malayalam.
Now everyone knows, or has often lamented the penchant of many Kannadigas to deny their language, and reams have been written about the Kannadiga pride in displaying ignorance of their own language. When two Malayalis or two Andhraites meet, the happily lapse into their language, whereas the Kannadiga , so the common complaint goes, will lapse into English.
This was the theme of friend Sandhya Mendonca’s blog a couple of days ago- in which she pointed out that many Indians are bilingual, and can switch between the languages with great felicity. I have always been amused to see my father and his five siblings communicate – one pair of his sisters would speak to each other in Dharwad Kannada, my dad and his elder brother too spoke to each other in Dharwad Kannada, and the other two sisters spoke Tamil to each other. But if the pairs broke up, Tamil was the medium!
I enjoy my GP Rajaratnam and Kailasam in Kannada, I can identify a Bharatiyar gem or two in Tamil , and as for Telugu, there is no greater joy than to watch the movie Mayabazar and soak in the romance of Lahiri Lahiri or laugh till I get stitches in my sides at Vivaha Bhojanambu. I find Thyagaraja and Purandardasa equally epiphanic in their respective languages, and despite a limited understanding of literary Tamil, I enjoy the occasional Rajaji’s Korai Onrum Illai for the voice of MS, and take a guilty , childish pleasure in parodied renderings of K. B. Sundarambal’s Avvaiyar songs. And of course, knowing Kannada has been a great boon- I have taught myself to read my grandfather’s Telugu translation of Valmiki Ramayana, since the scripts are similar.
My life has changed in the last five years, and I now live in a place where knowing 75 per cent of South Indian languages has been of little help. The husband speaks Malayalam, the 25 per cent that I never learnt!
Which means, we are now a 100 per cent English speaking family. And I have begun to recognize that it takes a lot of effort to learn a new language, never mind the comforting “its very easy, just like Tamil,” etc. I was on the plane to visit cousin Meenakshi in Minnesota a few months back, and it turned out I was the only desi among the 30 odd passengers on the tiny plane. both onward and the return flight. It was any icy winter morning, on the return flight, and we were delayed an hour while the plane and the tarmac got a wash. I passed a good deal of the time thinking I could say things in four languages (including Hindi) to anyone on the plane, and no one would even know that they were getting gibberish of four kinds!
Which brings us to my present peeve. In order to speak lustily and for long in Kannada, Tamil, or even Telugu, I need to call friends and family back home in India, or here in the US. There are reasons why when I hear these three languages in this wonderful land that I currently call home , I turn away, move to another aisle, or pretend I am not there at all. Experience is a great teacher. I mostly blame the knol khol pyramid at the Korean store, Lotte’ Plaza where you can buy dosakai (Mangaluru Southekai) under a gantry sign that loudly declares “DOSAKAI).
There is a lot of Telugu to be encountered at say Lotte’ , COSTCO, or Walmart, and Tamil, and much Malayalam. Kannada, on the other hand, is rarely heard. So I could barely conceal my delight when I heard this urgently pregnant woman contemplating the knol khol in her hand, and wondering, loudly, “idu knol khol allva?”
Too excited to consider that it might be a bad idea, I cheerfully volunteered, “howdu, idu knol kholenay“, because I had asked myself the same question when I first visited this store. One can never be sure of our familiar veggies knol khol, seemebadnekai that goes by the exotic name of chayote, in this country . They tend to be giant sized, and most of the time, quite tasteless . I long for the pungent “aroma” of a radish simmering in the sambhar nearly as much as I pine for a chinwag in Kannada. With someone sitting by me, on the same couch. Not over telephone .
Well, the upshot of my interjection was that we were soon talking about Uma theatre, Bull Temple, Gandhi Bazar, and so on, and exchanged phone numbers. . A couple of weeks later, she called, and asked if i was interested in a project. I am mortified to say I failed to see through her jargon and was in denial when the husband said it sounded like an Amway scam. I asked for more details, and found out, indeed, that it was Amway. I told her I wasn’t interested, and forbade husband from every mentioning this episode again, if he wanted his parippu prathaman
So you see, I can’t be blamed for being wary of Kannada- speaking pregnant women on the loose in Herndon Halli, and turning to FB, youtube and my small library of Kannada books to my regular fix. The important thing is to know you may take me out of Kannada, but you cannot take Kannada out of me. On this cliche’d note, I end, yearning deeply for my Babelore!