Justice for my Mother Tongue

I was taught in English throughout my schooling. It was a source of distinct pride for me, how fluently I spoke English. I love reading English literature. It is the only literature I read, and write in. I love the language, but some days, I hate it. It sounds strange to say it aloud, but my heart doesn’t beat in English. How could it? When the people it loves the most in the world don’t speak that language. I don’t speak English with my family. I speak Telugu, my mother tongue.

Telugu was the first language I learned. It is the only language my grandparents speak, the language my parents speak with ease and the language I grew up with. But stating that is only naming the doors to an entire world. Would anybody refute the fact that language houses much more than communication? The stores next to my house, the streets I frequent, the dishes I eat, the vegetables they are made of, my mother’s lullabies, my father’s anger, the customs of my family, my laughter at my brother’s jokes, they are all in Telugu. How do I begin to translate humor, anger, or love from one language to another? But even if I did, how many living and breathing memories could I translate? But I try to do it anyway.

It is only when I am doing it that I realize that it cannot be done. It cannot be done because they exist in Telugu alone. I try to translate and I find that they die. I wonder if I killed them, sometimes I second guess if they ever lived.  The vegetables I detail to my friends definitely don’t exist. They are not available in grocery stores in the USA, or in New Delhi even. They reside only in a town called Hyderabad, in a language called Telugu. But my mother’s touch also doesn’t exist in any language but my own. I try again and again, but I cannot describe my favorite rites or rituals from my childhood. A large joint family sprawled in a big living room, the television running in the background, the men sprawled on the sofas with the children wedged between them, the women in the chairs chatting for hours after dinner. I continue to struggle. My brother’s humor is nestled at the end of the sentence, in how he taunts and changes the suffixes of words and my name at the end. How am I to convert this into a different language?

I think you will chide me now. You might ask me if the difference I am belaboring and the world I am sketching is distinguished by culture, not language. But I ask of you, doesn’t my language house my culture? And isn’t my culture an orphan without my language? Our epics and best stories are in Telugu and they will perhaps be translated. The translation will mutilate it and morph it, but it might survive. But what will not survive is a way of life. And this is the injustice that is committed against mother tongues across the world today.

Love might be universal, but its expression is not. I think of how a Telugu movie made me feel recently. In the movie, an old woman lived in a village.  Half bent over, half deaf – speaking to her niece, she was half yelling at her. She spoke coarse, violent language but with familiarity and love. I was struck by the slightest ways in which that character and the movie stirred and warmed me. I watch English movies and wince sometimes. The movie may have everything right, but the emotion doesn’t permeate my body. I want it to envelop me. I want to sit there and rub my hands over my arms, calming my feverish skin and telling myself that it is only a movie. I want to force myself out of the memories it awakens in me, the love I felt in the presence of my grandfather. But instead, I complain often that the intimacy feels artificial. It is not the movie’s fault.

Love lies in the details, in mannerisms, in difficult conversations, in a body twitch, tone and a particular way of touching somebody. These mannerisms change, from one culture to the next, each housed in its own language. How are we, who are adrift in the sea of globalization, preserving these houses, I wonder? I speak so much of how Telugu feels but challenge me to convey that on paper in Telugu and I cannot. I must seek refuge in English to do that. I am but one representative of the slow oncoming death of our mother tongues. How can its death not mean the death of parts of us? I wonder how my ability to love, and my capacity to love cannot be inextricably altered, and diminished, in the absence of the language I learned love in.

I learned to love differently from how I express it today. We have the expression, “I love you” in Telugu. It is “nenu ninnu premisthunna”. But I don’t think I ever used it in my life. It is not said much – I love you. My parents said it to me for the first time, about two years ago I think. When I was away from home, and emotion, coupled with distance and modernity compelled them to verbalize it one evening. It surprised me when they said it. I knew it all my life, and I knew it without aching to hear it. My father wouldn’t say I love you, but he would hold me close and tell me that I was his stomach. He caresses my face and tells me that he and I are made of the same body. And that I am the world to him. It sounds voluptuous, this love, when I explain it in English. That is the language I know love in. My mother expresses it differently. Her touch holds her love, her fingers and her voice. She calls me Gudiya or beta or naana. All terms of endearment. Each contains love that I struggle to translate.

Amma means mother in Telugu. Amma wrote me a letter on my 21st birthday. About half the letter is about Telugu literature and the influence it had on her life. She asks that I learn it, and read it at some point in my life. I hate the fact that I am 28, and still haven’t done it. She is fine with me doing it in the twilight years she says. Post-retirement. She understands that I must spend my productive years learning a foreign man’s language, speaking it and loving it. I hate that she understands. I hate that I might never have an opportunity to share her love for Telugu literature with her. I hate myself for not summoning the time and will to do it. But I also hate the world for it.

I am studying at a law school with a cohort that has people from over 37 countries in the world. English is a gradient for each of our successes. Some of them tell me that they were mandated to learn their mother tongues for over three years in college. Hours and days of their lives, decrypting and learning the beauty of these languages. I wonder if they regret those hours now, as they spend hours fine-tuning their English for interviews. Jobs here and everywhere demand English.

But my rant is not against English alone. Some of my closest friends’ mother tongue is different from mine. It is Hindi. The language that is proclaimed to signify India’s unity now. It is a beautiful language. One that I learned in school and at work. But it too, is not my mother tongue. I converse in Hindi sometimes, with my friends. I watch myself. My thought is stilted, I am stilted. I speak it fluently, but I cannot make a quick repartee. I cannot exclaim my surprise, and I cannot draw on phrases of endearment. They feel foreign on my tongue.

You think in a language. Thought does have a language. And thought can be translated. But sometimes, when I am juggling between two languages, I forget to think. The mind feels like a blank slate in those seconds of the conversation. And in those seconds, the conversation dies. Sometimes, it is more than a conversation. It could be empathy that is dying. It could be kindness, humor, spontaneity or intimacy. They too, each dwell in language, I think.

I do not write to eulogize one language or mother tongue. I write to pay tribute to them all. Languages are a work of wonder. Looms spinning gold. There is a quote by Zelda Fitzgerald, “Nobody has ever measured, even poets, how much a heart can hold.” I believe the same of our mother tongues. They house our inner selves, our love and our rage, our insecurities and our ambitions. They build our memories and our ambitions. They trace our path home. You cannot know me without knowing my mother tongue. It is because I am built by it. So hold her close, your mother tongue. She needs you too, today.

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Harshitha Kasarla

Harshitha Kasarla is a writer and lawyer from India. She is also currently pursuing her Masters in Law at the University of Pennsylvania. Literature is her first and greatest love, and informs her world views, profession, and choices.