Another World Mother Language Day goes by and I find myself thinking about my mother tongue or rather my version of it, spoken where I come from. The language I grew up hearing; the language I was told never to use; the language I was told to forget even as I learnt to talk.
And I have been thinking along this vein ever since I saw Ozhimuri.
I speak about the version of Malayalam spoken down South, in the extreme South, in Kanyakumari district or rather Thekkan Thiruvithaankoor to be precise. Very close to the much-maligned Thironthoram bhasha, the Malayalam spoken here has its own distinct flavor, with a strong influence of Tamil. The language of Kanyakumari district is in a class of its own and in places, becomes Talayalam and much like inseparable lovers, you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
Besides Ozhimuri, Bavoottiyude Namathil and Pranchiyettan belong to a genre where we see local dialects taking center stage, often overshadowing the lead character. Needless to say, Ozhimuri struck home and sparked off quite a raw vein of nostalgia, to reach which, in my case you have but to scratch the surface.
What I liked best about the movie (we are not talking technical excellence, directorial perfection or acting prowess here) was the language. We see it presented here with dignity, unlike the fare offered by the tasteless comedian who has been making a vulgar parody of it in just about every film he appears in, (alright it was amusing the first time and maybe the second time. But after that it started grating on the nerves).
This is the language that the older generation in my family still speaks, to which we unconsciously switch when talking to them. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be caught dead speaking it. Somehow we learnt to look down upon it. It was not good enough for the Kanyakumari Malayali, already struggling with his dilemma of the neither here nor there; with the identity crisis of coming to terms with his newly found geographical identity which categorized him as a Tamilian while his deeper cultural ethos still identified him as a Malayali. It was probably an attempt to come to grips with the trauma of separation.
In a sense Ozhimuri was also symbolic of the divorce of the Tamil and Malayalam cultures in Kanyakumari district post 1956. Thank you Rajeev Srinivasan (eminent columnist) for helping me see that angle. That is why the language is such an important part of this movie. It plays a crucial role in it. Take away the language, its idiosyncrasies and nuances and replace it with the preferred ‘standard’ language and you effectually kill the movie.
‘Entharu’ was the first word to be stamped out of my lexicon. The rebuke I received for losing a silver anklet paled in comparison to the one I received for asking, “Entharu?” in ‘good’ company. The earthier and long drawn ‘Oh’ – which would be pronounced something like ‘Whoah’ – and ‘thanna’ were replaced with the more urbane ‘athe’.
I was warned not to talk in the singsong voice that came naturally and was told to talk in more clipped tones. The old language with its lilting cadence had its own comforting charm that could soothe frayed nerves only as a loving grandmother could. And I was also probably the last one in the family to use the term ‘ammachi’ for grandmother. The generation that followed switched to the more stylish ‘ammomma’.
Ozhimuri brought back warm memories with ‘ammachi,’ ‘makkale’ as a term of endearment, ‘ninnane,’ the long forgotten, quaint ‘ammingere’ (that was what the lady of the house was called by the workers), and a host of other colloquial usages. Not only these, how many more unique words did we lose in the process of being modernized?
Things became worse after my elder sister got married and moved to Trivandrum. I spent most of my summers with her in the ‘big city’. Along with the clothes she packed for me, my mother also packed a strong dose of dos and don’ts. If I did not follow these instructions, I would be laughed at and looked down upon, came the dire warning.
And when my nephew was born, I realized, much to my dismay that a term of endearment that had been directed at me several times had now become something else altogether. Which kid in her right mind would allow herself to be called ‘appi’ after that? I bet no other word has fallen so low by straying a few miles. (Yes, I know quite a few Tamil words have suffered similar fates by venturing across the border, but I am talking about the fall in the same language here.)
What surprised me was that despite being warned not to talk in my most natural way, I kept hearing snatches of the same dialect in Trivandrum too.
With all that forced conditioning and unlearning, do you think it has been totally stamped out of us? At unguarded moments, when we get carried away by emotion or excitement, the good old ‘mother tongue’ comes out. Like a guilty secret that refuses to be suppressed, the language within raises its head, a cheeky reminder of our roots. I am sure we are laughed at secretly during those moments. Well, what can I say? That is who we are.
And I cannot describe the relief that comes when talking to someone from the same area, when I can let my guard down and not be worried about an occasional slip up.
But is it so bad? Is any dialect bad for that matter? While other local dialects are looked upon with fond amusement, why is this dialect alone being ridiculed? Why this step motherly treatment to the dialect from the South? And who declared the superiority of one over the other? By what standard is the language spoken in a certain region considered to be the gold standard? Central location? Amount of literary works produced in a region? Cultural activity? Or some other invisible parameter? And does the lower status accorded to the dialect, in any way extend to the people who speak it too? The last time I checked, people from Trivandrum were not winning any popularity contests. Could there be a relation between the two?
Things aren’t much different with the Tamil spoken in Kanyakumari district either. Closest in resemblance to the Tamil spoken in Sri Lanka, this dialect too has its share of jabs from Tamil purists. But what they do not realize is that the joke is on them. Kanyakumari Tamil actually has more in common with classical Tamil than the so called other purer forms.
And what I would like to thank Madhupal the most is for sticking to the local language without reducing it to a mere parody or trying to ‘elevate’ the local lingo. Credit is also due to the wonderful writer Jeyamohan who scripted Ozhimuri and has stayed faithful to the local dialect in several other stories too. Watching the movie was like going home. Not only the familiar sights of home (this wasn’t something new. A lot of directors have made use of the scenic beauty of my bit of paradise this side of heaven), but this movie made use of the familiar sounds too.
And I realized that it was not such a bad thing after all. All dialects need to be respected and celebrated. You can always have a preference for one over another. But no one gave you the authority to ridicule another. These dialects, kept alive only through oral traditions, are what make a language a living entity, constantly changing and evolving, surprising you and amusing you. Uniformity can be tiresome. Enjoy the diversity.
So this Mother Tongue Day, go ahead, love your language but don’t forget to embrace your siblings too.
PS: Thank you Kumar Mullakkal for the beautiful pictures.