Tuesday, February 15, 2005

So, where are You from?

There is no question which has baffled me more than this one. My answers to this question usually varies depending on various factors :- my geographical location at the time, the profile of the questioner, the occasion,what I am doing at the time and my mood besides other things.
For I, having been born a Malaysian citizen, of Indian origin, with roots in Kerala but having lived most of my life in Tamilnadu, can surely be very confusing.

Last week, at a college interview, the first question was ' So, what do you have to tell us about Malaysia?' . ' I was just born there' I replied. 'Just born?' the panelist replied and proceeded to ask me questions on the economy and the infrastructure and the political scenario and the landmarks of the muslim country. After replying to all of it, I decided I better clarify before they start grilling me the specifics of the place, which , honestly, I dont know much about. ' I was only there for two months, as a baby' I said . With oh-how-uninteresting smiles, they then moved on to other questions.

School life was quite okay. Being a convent school run by Malayalee nuns, a lot of students were from Kerala and since I was officially admitted as an Indian student, there was hardly a problem. In my gang of 6, though four of us were mallus, we never conversed in Mallu. My mallu skills were confined to home, where we happily adulterated it with a lot of Tamil and English.

During vacation trips to my native place in Kerala, I would be dismissed as a quiet kid. The truth being, I didnt understand many of the words my cousins used, and was quite scared my masala malayalam would be ridiculed.

My Tamil, though,was picking up. Armed with just a year of formal education in the language in my 1st standard( I took Hindi after that), my skills improved .Thanks to the bus boards and the movie posters and of course, Oliyum oliyum movie names. Malayalam script, on the other hand, was as alien as Telugu to me.

Four years at college taught me colloqial Hindi. I am well versed in all words and phrases required to converse with people who cook and serve you food and those who stitch your clothes. But of course, since I have never understood why languages need to assign genders to tables and TVs and dreams and vegetables, my Hindi can be really funny. Telugu words unravelled a bit and slowly the jalebis in their script differed from the murukkus of Malayalam. For people guessing which state I was from, the guesses always ranged from Gujarat and other Northern states as their first choice to Tamil Brahmin as their second (they are such a famous breed, I think they deserve a state!).

I was part of the Malayalee club in college, called Kairali. The meetings left me with a comfy feeling, being able to listen to Malayalam being spoken so many miles away from home. But I was still shy of my mallu and would only speak back in English. I watched Tamil movies and plays and would even consider auditioning for it. But I have only seen half a malayalam movie in BITS and preferred to stay away from mallu skits and dances. Though I did turn up to serve for the mallu feasts in off-white gold bordered sarees.

My Mom and Dad speak excellent Tamil. My Dad can even speak like a typical Tam Brahm and with his name noone would doubt him. They then hope the mallu channels show the movie name for more than a minute because they cant read it soon enough. My brother's Tamil is as bad as his Malayalam but given a choice he'd pick Tamil. Our 500 book-strong library has four books in Tamil including 'Bharathiyar Kavithaigal' ( Poems of Bharathiyar) . Zero books in Malayalam. The first and only recipe book I bought , though, is ' The Essential Kerala cookbook'. None of us can understand the Malayalam news and we google when we are asked for the meaning of the mallu lyrics in ' Jiya jale jaan jale..'

When travelling abroad, we often simplify things and say we are malayalees from Kerala when in the company of true blue foreigners. It is just too complex to explain where we stay and where we belong to. Besides they often seem to know about the beautiful backwaters and we have something to talk about. We thank God for not giving us the mallu accent and when people say ' Malayalees are Kolayalees ( murderers)' , we smile and speak about how long we have lived in Tamilnadu that we are almost Tamilians. But of course, when people speak about how beautiful mallu women are or how amazing the mallu cuisine is, let me remind you that my grand uncle was the Diwan of Cochin and I am as Malayalee as anyone can get.

My parents did try and make sure I learnt a few alphabets in Malayalam and it is a language I would want my kids to know. But of course, they would need to learn Tamil too, to understand the stiff, I adulterate their mother tongue with.

Travelling around for interviews last two weeks was good fun. The students would ask me, Where are you from?. Coimbatore. Which college in Coimbatore? . Oh no, I studied in BITS, Pilani. Oooooh ok, So you are a Tamilian?. No, no, I am a Malayalee. Oh! So where are you from?!