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On Malayalam and Melancholia

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February 20, 2014



I’m at one of my favourite restaurants in Chicago, nearing the end of a long week which has been both more and less productive than I’d hoped for.  I dragged myself here in an effort to finish a piece I’ve been working on forever.


The rain has kept most customers away, I’ve had the privilege of a large dining room to myself, and the television set directly above my head has been mercifully silent.  Every now and then, people will come in and leave when they’re done.  I’ve stayed on, nibbling at my chicken biryani and downing endless cups of tea as I lie hunched over in my corner.


At one point, two people come in and I realise instantly that they’re speaking Malayalam.  I try not to look too interested, and avoid any signs that might indicate I can’t just hear them but understand them.  In the Malayalam-speaking world, and in India, where I’m from, my surname gives away my Malayali identity easily, as does, according to some, my hair, my lips, my skin, my everything.  


As they continue talking, I listen.  I know this is rude, but I’m interested not in what they say, but in what hearing a language I haven’t spoken or heard in a very long time, years probably, evokes in me.  In India and amongst Indians everywhere, the question, “Where are you from?” means more than it does amongst Americans.  It means, “Who are your parents?  What do they do?  Where did you go to school?  Might our families know each other?  What do you do?  Who are you, really?” and a host of other unarticulated questions.  In years past, Malayalis, at least Malayali men, held their entire provenance in their names: their family’s place of origin, their fathers’ names, and then their first names.  In effect, their names were like passports, delivering all the information you might ever need: “This is a man, from the city of X, whose father is Y, and who was given the name of Z.  You can trust him or beware of him, depending on what his name tells you.”


When asked by anyone, Where are you from, in India? my response is always, “My parents are from Kerala, but I’m from Calcutta.”  It’s not a response that would have been welcomed when I was actually growing up in India, when where you were from was determined by your parents’ birthplace.  In the Northeast of India, Malayalis or Keralites (there is some sort of distinction, but I’ll leave it to better minds to parse that out) were lumped together with all the rest of the “southies,” including people from southern states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.


I was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and then wandered through Kathmandu, Bombay (now Mumbai), and back to Cal.  I’ve spent very little actual time in Kerala, although both my parents’ families as well as my extended family are inextricably woven into its history and politics.  I know of some of that lineage, but a very particular family history has meant it being occluded or veiled in ways that I may or may not grapple with.


My relationship to Malayalam falls within that particular and peculiar history.  In a country like India, where millions are perforce inter-lingual, negotiating several different languages, sometimes simultaneously, the presence of languages is carefully calibrated.  There is one’s “mother tongue,” which is what Malayalam is to me, and there is one’s “first” language, which is what English has always been to me.  Then, if you went to the kind of educational institution I attended, there’s a “second language,” Hindi, in my case (English is the official language of India) and, up to a certain point in your education, a “third” language, the language of the state you reside in; you’re required to learn all of these.


For some, a “mother” and “first” language are the same, but for me, Malayalam has always been hard.  I have distant but painful memories of being taught the script, which is beautiful, at a very young age, long before I began kindergarten, and failing miserably.  Or, perhaps, simply performing the way any pre-schooler might, but still being made to feel the stinging thwack  of a wooden ruler on my bare thighs.  I hated it and to this day have no desire to learn it.


I spoke it haltingly, even at home, where we spoke in various combinations of Malayalam, English, Nepali, Hindi, Marathi, and Bengali, depending on where we were. I couldn’t or, rather, wouldn’t write or read it, my truculence hardened by those early memories as well as a desire to escape.  


I can’t understand everything these people are saying to each other, but enough to gather that it’s a fairly typical conversation amongst two people who know each other well.  I listen to the sound of Malayalam and it occurs to me, as it always has, that Malayalam is a profoundly melancholy language.


Growing up, I associated the Malayalam of my parents and the few relatives I knew with a deep and  profound sense of melancholia.  At night, I could hear them talking about news from their families, and I never heard joy or elation, only sadness mixed in with a sense of negativity that seeped into my life.  


The Malayalam novel Chemeen’s title literally translates into “Shrimp,” but it’s more widely translated as The Anger of the Sea, lending it a more august, Syngeian tone.  At some point, despite having no connections with either the history or the language of Kerala, I was given a copy of its English translation by my father and told to read it.  I did, and it only intensified my sense of the inherent melancholia of all things Keralite.  It’s a story about lovers and the sea, and lovers who die by the sea, and people who spend their lives fruitlessly living by and on the sea, most of whom drown in the sea… you get the point.  The original title is actually the more accurate one because, as I recall, this is actually a novel about how much is at stake on so little for entire communities by the sea; the problem, of course, is that a literal translation into English denudes it of all the metaphoric resonances of the word as it appears in the novel.   As for the work itself: My only response, kept to myself, was, This is depressing. You people have no idea how to be happy.


Kerala is not, at least in the popular imagination of the time I grew up in India, heralded for for its warrior-like ethos even though, strictly speaking, it has a long martial history.  In India, where there’s a great deal of racism towards darker-skinned people, most “southies” are rendered in egghead-like stereotypes and they’re generally disregarded as fighters.  Kerala is widely and justifiably praised for many other things, such as its spectacular landscapes, its literacy rate, especially for women, and its matriarchal history.  It’s famous for its boats, and it has always struck me, as someone who hardly knows or understand the region’s actual history,  as a peculiarly Keralite feature that we build boats that are utterly beautiful but are (now) utterly incapable of actually waging war.  


But to return to the language, and the couple speaking Malayalam: Perhaps I listen in particular ways, those midnight blots of conversation having thoroughly seeped into my unconscious, but I can’t help hearing, even in their everyday humdrum chatting about everyday events and the people they know, that very definite lilt of melancholia.  There’s a rise and fall in Malayalam which has always seemed to me to be the particular intonation of the language, the sadness and heaviness of a past that can never be reconciled, a sense of deep foreboding, a sense that, ultimately, nothing will ever really be all right, and all we can do is to continue on with our lives as best we can. Perhaps there are happy, joyous Keralites everywhere else, and perhaps it’s simply that all those in my life who spoke the language seemed always to be so melancholic.

Perhaps my fixating on melancholia and Malayalam, spurred on by these seemingly happy people in this restaurant, oblivious to the fact that I’ve grasped them in my speculations, is a way of coping, as they say.  Or perhaps melancholia is the necessary condition of existence.


For what does it mean to not be melancholy in this day and age?  How can we possibly be anything but melancholy?  To me, a deep and abiding melancholia is not about succumbing to our conditions but about acknowledging that they exist.  Is it possible, I wonder, that my exposure to Malayalam, and to all the freighted histories that it brought into my life, histories in which I had no part to play but for which I will owe retribution long after I am gone, that my early listening but never quite understanding the language has somehow been like a defensive gene in my DNA?  Am I inoculated against being overtaken by the world because of my years listening to a language that came imbued with so many secretly whispered stories at night, of wrongs in the past, of pain and wounding, its very cadence damning me to too much knowledge?   Am I melancholy because I am alive, or am I alive because I am melancholy?


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