An incident that happened the other day at the shop in the temple.
The old man at the counter asked Anu in Malayalam, “Kuttikku entha vendathu?” [What do you want child?]
Anu understands Malayalam quite well but doesn’t speak to anyone outside the family because she is not fluent and confident. She looked at me. I repeated it to her in English and asked her to reply to him in Malayalam. She was reluctant. I did not force.
The man, known to me for years, asked her, “Malayalam ariyille?” [You don’t know Malayalam?]
He repeated it. I saw Anu shrinking away.
As I picked up the incense sticks and wicks, I heard the old man say, “Shame! Shame!”.
I looked at him and then at my child who was feeling uncomfortable.
He repeated again, “Shame! Shame!”
That was it. I could no longer hold it. Though I wanted to scream my lungs out at him for making my child feel inadequate, I controlled myself.
And then I told Anu, “Ask uncle if he knows French.”
I could see his face going blank and hers brightening up. He sat down on his chair without another word.
While leaving the shop, I asked Anu to say Good Bye to him in French.
“Au Revoir!“, she said.
And we walked out hand in hand. I could see in her eyes how much it mattered to her.
How important is it to know your mother-tongue?
Is it something that the kids cannot survive without?
I would have left the place quietly had he stopped after the first time. But repeating it meant that he was deliberately mocking the child. And mocking or ridiculing someone is not something I take in good spirits. I have always and always taught the girls to be sensitive towards others. To not tease or mock anyone. And I proudly say that the little one goes a step ahead. She confronts fellow classmates who mock others. She makes them understand how the other person feels. And the best part is that her friends do take her word seriously and the teachers appreciate it.
Like all grandparents, my parents want my children to learn their mother-tongue, Malayalam. Likewise, their paternal grandparents want them to learn their language, Garhwali. They keep repeating it to me every now and then. I completely understand their point of view and their sentiments. But I don’t see the lack of knowledge of a language as a hindrance. Not knowing a certain language cannot restrict them from leading successful lives. I can fluently read and write Malayalam but I don’t see it helping me in any way other than being able to communicate with people or enjoying Malayalam movies. Mother Teresa didn’t know many of the languages. Nor did Buddha. Didn’t they lead their lives happily and meaningfully? Didn’t they do any good good for humanity because they didn’t know many languages?
Dad keeps telling me how everyone is making their children join various classes: dance, singing, arts, language learning etc., and how I don’t take any initiative. I did take them to whichever class they wanted to. And they continued as long as they felt good about it. I believe that forcing the child to take up something will not do them any good. May be I am wrong. But I am fine with whatever they are doing in their lives right now. I don’t compare them with other children. All I tell them is to put in their best efforts in whatever they are doing and I am fine if they fail even after that. I don’t want to burden them with my (or others’) expectations. More than all of this, I believe it is important to teach them human values and life skills. I won’t be proud to see them bringing in laurels in different activities while hurting others with their words or actions. Multi-talented children with no respect for others is not what I am here to raise. They will learn things as and when they feel like. We are not going to join the rat race just because others feel we are any less competent.
Some of you may call me an over-protective parent, but may be I am compensating for what I lost as a child. Had it been a child of her own age, Anu would have given it back herself. She chose not to respond because he was an elderly person and this mother taught her to respect age and experience. But never at the cost of her self-esteem.
My kids don’t know their mother tongue. Fine. That does not make them any less worthy in this big world. They are here to live beautifully, laugh heartily, share generously and spread unlimited joy. Period.