"How many languages do you speak?"
"In how many would you be able to do a basic explanation of your history exam essays?"
"Uhm… One. Maybe two. Three, at a stretch. Definitely not four. Definitelier not five."
The words roll off my tongue in time with the music. They are familiar, comforting words. I’ve listened to these songs so many times that I know the sounds and when they’re supposed to make their appearances. I don’t understand most of the words. They just roll. Maybe one in every sentence. Maybe a few more. Maybe I can try piecing together the meaning of the wonderful lyrics. But, no. I know what they mean because of what the music sounds like, because I have seen these words coupled with scenes from a movie. Characters I understand, emotions I understand. But, words, I do not. I do not need to understand them to know them, to love them, to regret not being able to write them.
"Oh! Are you an international student?"
"Yes, I’m Indian."
"But, wow, your English is so good! Better than most English people."
"Yes, it’s my first language."
"So… You spoke it in school?"
"Yes, there have been English medium schools in India since 1835, actually."
I sit in front of the examiners, nervously. I try and piece together the words to tell them I am nervous. It is my first oral exam. I am uncertain. I have faith in my ability to speak in a classroom, to read out a paragraph, in the accent I am so proud of. But, to be examined on it? I’m not so sure. I stumble through the fifteen minutes, my thoughts spewing out all jumbly, interspersed with English, my fall-back. They are such pleasant people, they giggle chaque fois je utilise un mot en anglais. I forget all my fancy phrases in the subjunctive and struggle to convey my opinions and experiences with misogyny and racism in awkward present tense. I try, but I am yet to find out whether I passed. I tried. I tried.
"What’s your mother tongue?"
"Tamil. Maybe Malayalam. But, my Hindi is better. Not great, but better."
I am in a small town. Kachcha paths and sparse shrubbery. We walk around, my mother’s memory, decades old, serving as a map. We ask around, my mother’s tongue speaking a language I cannot. We find the house. We knock. We are greeted by an old woman in a white sari. She exclaims, “MEERA!” and holds on to my mother. She cannot contain her surprise, her joy, it flows down her face and dampens her cotton blouse. She has never met me, but hugs me as though I am her own. The tears well up in my own eyes, because as they converse, I am unable to contribute beyond ‘sheri’ okay ‘onum venda' i don't want anything ‘nanaitu ondu’ it is good. We sit for a while, but soon must leave. She tells us to come again, she tells us to bring my grandmother, she is so welcoming, love transcends language, but I feel alien. I do not wholly belong. What will happen of these relationships in my adult life? How will I sustain them?
Amma. Ammoomma. Kunjammoomma. Chitappan. Akka. Chechi.
I wonder what words my children will one day use to address their family. What answers they will have to give to the question, ‘How many languages do you speak?’ Will I be able to raise them any way other than ‘English is my mother tongue’ because their mother will be me. English speaking, English thinking, English writing, English dreaming me.