If asked what my greatest accomplishment was, I would say that it was learning Malayalam.
My parents were educated in English-medium schools, had little to no exposure to the written word in Malayalam. My mother’s spoken Malayalam was melodious. She has lost none of the Thrissur accent of her forefathers. It was also completely at odds with what the written word was about.
I ended up in a school-system that required us to learn Malayalam a lot (the epics, the poetry, the grammar – the works). I was singularly unfortunate. Being Catholic required you to do school catechism classes that were taught in Malayalam. I scraped through to high-school, and found out to my dismay that I had to do well in three papers – Malayalam I (the literature), Malayalam II (the essays, the critiques) and Catechism. I rued my lot. Most everyone in my batch spent time learning Mathematics and Science. I spent my time learning Malayalam.
I despised the language. I had no reason to like it, after all. My English was fluent. It was, I knew, the only language that I required. Each time I was bullied by teachers or fellow-students regarding my incompetency in Malayalam, I revelled in fantasies of getting away from it one day, and finally taking heart in the fact that my competency in English would grant me the last victory. Getting away required doing well in the subject though. I needed to know how to write in that blasted language, I realised, if only to have sufficient marks to get through the boards and have a chance at the better higher-secondary schools. So I set to it with grimness. I read the epics, I read the newspaper editorials of Mathrubhumi and I read Aashan-Ulloor-Vallathol with solemnity suitable to one approaching the gallows. I saw no beauty in any of it. I was determined to do well. Thinking back, I was more disciplined as a teenager than I am now. When I set my mind to something then, I usually managed to get it done through sheer perseverance. I made progress, slowly, and my skills at writing in Malayalam improved enough to give me hope that I might not face utter rout in the board-exams. It was nowhere near what I wanted, though.
The hyacinth spoke Malayalam well. Her accent was coarse and nothing close to the melody of my mother’s Thrissur accent, but her skills at writing in Malayalam outstripped that of most everyone I knew then. As our involvement increased, I began to find another reason to learn the blasted language. The first letter I received was in Malayalam. The next one was in Malayalam too. And the one after that. I couldn’t bear to be outdone by her. So I set myself the task of crafting replies more beautiful. I cheated, most of the time. I wrote in English and translated that into Malayalam painstakingly. The end was stilted prose that the Victorians would have balked at.
Time went by. The boards were a few weeks away. I had resigned all hopes of doing any better in the Malayalam papers. Grimly, I played catch-up with the other subjects, cursing Ezhuthachan all the while. I had spent most of my school-life trying to learn that language. Now school-life was drawing to a close, and I had drawn no nearer to Malayalam’s secrets.
Then the hyacinth read out Verukal to me. I was transported, through the writer’s verses, to look at a land old and beautiful, through the lens of a language that was as exact as Sanskrit and as expressive as Tamil.
I did horribly well in my Malayalam board exams, buoyed by the transcendental experience of having Malayalam fed to me in a story of decay related by a voice well-loved. I have written more in Malayalam voluntarily after that, though I haven’t had any good reason to. I remember a lot (vahnisanthapthalohastaambubindunabanguram, marthyajanman kshanaprabhaachanchalam). I have a rather good-looking hand-writing when it comes to writing in the script. I remember waking up from dreams, months after the board-exams were over, trying reassure myself that it was all over and that I would not have to put up with the perpetual worry that scoring poorly in the language would hold me back from going to a better place.
That was all long ago. Learning Malayalam did not grant me much in life. Knowing English has been highly useful.
I don’t plan to have do anything with Kunchan Nambiar’s convoluted poetry in the future. I wonder if I will forget it though.