Column

Diaspora Dilemmas

4 June 2019

Imagine being one-quarter Sindhi, one-quarter Bengali, one-quarter Tamil and one-quarter Telegu and not being able to speak any of the languages from these areas. Imagine being the colour of a perfectly blended hot chocolate from Standing Room, but sounding like a cup of tea with almost a whole bottle of milk poured in.

I cannot speak any Indian language. I’ve tried to skirt around this fact, relying on my broken knowledge of Hindi to get me through introductions with fellow desis around uni. But, there comes a time in every conversation where my limited knowledge cannot keep up and I shrink back into myself.

I come from a large family that resembles a patchwork quilt of different regions of India all sewn together. Each part of my family has its own set of traditions, unique to the region that they come from. Language is no stranger to this, with four or five different languages being spoken throughout my family.

Hindi sounds like summer. Sweet, romantic, hazy naps. It sounds like my Nani asking Dadu if he wants chai, or what he would like for dinner. It sounds like home.

Bengali sounds like colour. Its an injection of life and bubbly energy. It’s like a constant stream of happiness and love, carried on a cloud of smiles.

Tamil sounds like Singapore. It sounds like my dad singing old songs late into the evening, my athai’s plethora of recipes for south Indian food and like my maternal grandmother crocheting in her wooden chair facing the garden.

Sindhi sounds like a sister. A secret language between my Nani and her sister, the way they slip into it no matter how long it been since they’ve spoken, reminds me of how the ties of this patchwork family are never going to break. It’s an outsider, foreign and mysterious, but beautiful nonetheless.

I sometimes silently try to practice Hindi to myself. I listen to my carefully curated Indian playlist and emulate the lyrics to the best of my limited ability. I break down the words in my head, but the minute I try and speak out loud, even if its just to myself in the mirror, these beautiful words suddenly feel so heavy in my mouth. Out of place.

These languages are too foreign for this white tongue. I feel like a stranger in my own culture, my skin. What is culture if not held together by the language? And what is my plethora of cultural ties if not held together by any language?

Instead, I resort to asserting myself, and my brownness through other means. I’ve tried to define my identity without language, but it’s proven futile. I still feel in between, too white for the East and way too brown for the West. I feel as though without a language to ground me, I’ll never truly belong in my ‘motherland’.

My knowledge of Hindi has gotten remarkably better the longer I’ve spent with my grandparents. They can no longer communicate in ‘secret’, as I am able to glean what’s being said despite my knowledge of just a few key words and phrases. I listen desperately, reaching out my childish hands trying to greedily grip at any possibility for understanding. I let the few words I do know act as support, as I shakily try to stand my ground during conversations. Ultimately, I let imagination fill in the blanks and hope that context is enough of an ally, allowing for me to smile and nod in the background.

Language has robbed me of the ability to communicate. My paternal grandmother only spoke Tamil and Malay fluently, and I was so young when she was alive. Our conversations were silent, instead of talking, we made faces and sang to each other. We were separated by the glass barrier of language. In saying that, laughter was the rock that eventually smashed the barrier. When we were laughing, the fact that we couldn’t hold conversation meant nothing.  She would scoop me up into her lap and I would breathe in her coconut oil and clove scent whilst I slept on her and she called me “ammadey”. The need for a common language didn’t seem so important then, but I wish seven-year-old me had more of a handle on communication, so not all her stories were lost when we lost her too.

When people ask me what I’m doing once I graduate, the only thing I know for certain is that learning one of those four languages is at the top of my to-do list. I’ve spent too long without being tethered to my mother tongue, and now she’s calling me home.


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