The Language Conundrum

Probably one of the toughest parts about moving here is the language barrier. It’s incredibly frustrating to think twice every time I venture out; to haggle with three wheeler drivers in broken Hindi mixed with English; to be forced to rely on the kindness (or sullen gestures, depending on the nature of the person) of strangers for directions or for advice and to resort to rudimentary hand gestures to get my point across.

I’m used to going wherever I want without a second thought and given the unsafe nature of this city (rape capital of India, folks) and my language handicap, all this second guessing – it’s terribly frustrating.

I’m a little better with the language now. I’ve picked the most elementary Hindi phrases and as long as I don’t encounter a chatty/rude/antagonistic three wheeler driver/vendor/salesperson, I’m safe. But the moment they try to carry on a conversation, counter my bargaining skills or speak in Hindi phrases I’m unfamiliar with, I’m forced to grimace, shrug my shoulders and recite ‘Mujhe Hindi patha nahi’ (I don’t know Hindi).

I miss talking to strangers. I miss the fluidity of a familiar language and forging a connection with a random person. Over here, without the proper knowledge of the language, I can’t bargain, barter and banter like I do back at home (please note the unintentional alliteration. I’m quite proud of it). It’s hard to gauge a person solely on the merit of their body language sometimes and because I’m hazy about their motives, I can’t even smile freely when they strike up conversations. For all intents and purposes, they could be asking me to hand over my kidneys and I would probably just nod and smile back since I wouldn’t know what they were saying.

Jokes apart, I’m forced to be a bit of a snob when I venture out. I’m the snooty cow who doesn’t talk to vendors and who doesn’t smile at people and I hate that. Some of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had back at home, have been with three-wheeler drivers and little kids. There’s a melting pot of diverse people over here, from the turbaned chai walla with a white beard to his waist to the cat-eyed boy who sells vegetables down our lane, who have stories to tell, if you’re willing to stop for a minute and listen.

This is just a part of my language issue. Here’s the second. Brace yourselves, it’s a little long.

There’s a general curiosity from most people when they hear I’m from Sri Lanka. Some aren’t too bothered, it’s too close in terms of vicinity for me to be an exotic import and in their minds, it’s almost a part of India (go figure). But there are others who ask me questions (oh, the questions! Some of them are too funny) and are genuinely interested.

A friend kept asking me what my mother tongue was. ‘Well, it’s Sinhala or Tamil for most people back at home, but I’m more comfortable with English’ I replied. She made a face. ‘No. Your mother tongue’ she emphasized, ‘it can’t possibly be English. What is it?’

The thing is, I really don’t know.

I’ve had the mother tongue debacle for as long as I can remember.  Both my parents grew up speaking Tamil and are equally fluent in English. The maternal unit’s Sinhala is excellent, when the paternal unit speaks in Sinhala, people run away (it’s appalling. Lots of fodder for dinner time conversations). As far as I know, both my maternal and paternal grandparents grew up with fluency in Tamil and English, while only my maternal grandparents know Sinhala.

Apart from the few Tamil lullabies, my grandmother would croon, I grew up in a household of people who predominantly spoke in English to me.  My bed time stories were written in English. I think in English. I’m most comfortable writing in English. Hell, I even dream in English.

I studied in Sinhala while in school. Struggled in Sinhala would be more appropriate, really. While we were in school, we didn’t have English medium (I’m not talking about the International Schools over here) I remember being completely flummoxed during my first Sinhala classes in nursery and coming home, sobbing to my mum. (That marked the beginning of my long stint with Sinhala tuition)

For 11 years I struggled, since all my subjects for O/L’s were in Sinhala. My flow of thought was in English, so I would have to constantly filter my thoughts, translate them into Sinhala, sometimes struggling for the right words and then put pen to paper. It wasn’t easy, but I pulled through.  I’m just grateful that we had the option of having English medium during our A/L’s.

Now, I’m finally fluent in Sinhala. I can’t swear yet, but that’s okay. I have a feeling my expansive knowledge of English swear words can tide me through any situation but my Tamil leaves much to be desired. I can read if I keep pausing after every two words, but my spoken Tamil is as good as my dad’s Sinhala.

Most of my paternal relatives speak solely in Tamil, so whenever we visited them the language barrier was the elephant in the room. They weren’t fluent in English, I wasn’t fluent in Tamil – it was one big family party.

I think I earned the title of the snobbish Colombo cousin. Relatives thought that I considered myself ‘too good’ to speak in Tamil. But really I was far too shy, because my broken Tamil phrases would immediately have my brigade of relatives smirking behind their shawls.

So, what determines one’s native language or mother tongue? Your nationality, ethnicity? How about geographical location? People of my ethnic group situated in the North and South of the country, speak different languages. Little breakaway groups even have varied dialects of one tongue. And then there’s the Diaspora – what of them?

The internet informs me that a person’s mother tongue (also known as first language, arterial language) is,

1) The language first learned by a child

2)  One’s native language or parent language; the language learned by children and passed from one generation to the next.

3) Or the language that a person speaks best and so is often the basis of socio-linguistic identity.

 If it’s the first and the third, then it’s definitely English for me but it also brings up the problem of my socio-linguistic identity (I have no idea what the native language of my ethnic group should be. Arabic? Tamil?). If it’s the second, it should be Tamil, since that’s the common language predominantly passed down from my family, but as I’ve explained, it’s not.

I had teachers in school who constantly emphasized that you weren’t a true ‘Sri Lankan’ if you couldn’t speak in Sinhala (I kid you not) and that it was scientifically proven that children who studied in their mother tongue were xyz% smarter and excelled more than those who didn’t. Hence, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable about my linguistic identity, wondering if somewhere down the line, I’d lost my way and as a result dropped fragments of my identity on the wayside.

Is there anyone else who has had a problem with their mother tongue or native language?  Or have all the lines we so love to draw around languages, identity and culture and the pigeon holes we like to pop people in, dissolved in the 21st century? Should I go back to studying Tennyson instead of having identity crises’ at 2.30 in the morning? Should I worry that I haven’t finished a quarter of my syllabus for my finals which are in less than a week?


>Oh, The Drama


So X has had the hots for Y for quite some time now. He’s been on and off the fence about professing his lust, I beg your pardon, love for Y, but the only thing that was stopping him was that Y was already in a relationship.

Therefore, in order to vent his lovelorn feelings, he would call The In-between Friend (TIF) and expound all of Y’s virtues and confess his deepest longing for Y. X also, annoyingly, started to hint that TIF should subtly allude to his many virtues in her conversations with Y (marriage proposal style) thereby paving the way for him. TIF tried asking him to sod off in the nicest possible way, but unfortunately X proved to be thicker than most males.

And THEN Y breaks up with her boyfriend.

X is rallying his forces and about to pounce for the kill when (gasp) he finds that Y’s already in ANOTHER relationship with a different guy (the horror!).

X is distraught. Inconsolable. Devastated. But does he give up?


Being the ever fighting alpha male he is, he is determined to save Y from another broken relationship (although she doesn’t know it yet) and finally profess his undying lust love to her.

Which is all very well, but he is insisting that TIF also comes along to witness this glorious moment and jump in as back-up support for him. Now TIF values her weekends. She does not want to get in the middle of this epic love circle, and she already has a prior engagement. With her bed.

While TIF has reluctantly played the part of the staid friend thus far, her nerves are fraying and this hindi story like plot is starting to get a bit old now. All this drama back and forth is taking its toll on her. And frankly, she doesn’t really care anymore.

The epic love story stands at loose ends.

What will happen? Will X finally come clean with Y? What will Y’s response be? Or will X stay silent, watching from the sidelines? What does TIF do amidst all this turmoil?

Only time will tell.

Note: All the characters in the story are based on actual people. Any resemblance to anyone, living or dead is purely intentional. And all of these characters are grown adults. I kid you not.

Note 2: Moral of the story – High school never does end.

Note 3: Clearly TIF is the real victim here. Donations for TIF’s therapy will be gladly accepted. Cash only please.

>6 yards of misery


A family weddings coming up, and my mums already started the search for that perfect sari. Unfortunately, since it’s a close relative, I’ve been coerced into wrapping myself in 6 yards of silk, donning a pair of heels (shudder) and making a complete ass of myself.

I actually used to enjoy popping from one store to another because the various hues and the myriad of textures from chiffon to georgette to heavy raw silk are riveting and absolutely beautiful to look at. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of silk and sequins as the salesmen pull out one sari after another in-between their sales banter.

But when you’re buying a sari for yourself and your extremely selective mother, it’s a whole new ball game. You’re acutely aware of every sequin and every embroidered border and the fact that you’ll be forking out a huge chunk of cash for the said sari.

The problem with shopping with my mum, is that we tend to clash. A lot. Our ideas of style are completely dissimilar and our taste in colours are poles apart, so it’s really no surprise that we barely make it out of any sari shop without a mini show down. I’ve seen salesmen visibly shudder when we walk into their outlets sometimes.

Today’s sari sojourn made me feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle. Dear god, when did sari’s become so expensive? Or is it that we’re just looking in all the wrong places. A simple printed one with a few sequins strewn on it was priced at 28,000. The salesmen were spouting prices like 34,000 and 45,000 without batting an eyelid for the simplest of sari’s. How, I ask you, how can you spend so much on an outfit which you’ll probably wear twice at the most and sleep comfortably at night?

I’m extremely picky, but surprisingly I found – nay, fell in love with – one which was absolutely perfect. I stood there for a few minutes, petting it lovingly because I was too scared to drape it on myself. If we’d stayed there longer I would probably have started crooning lullabies.

But then…. then I saw the price. I heaved a sigh. And got out of the place as fast as I could. It was one of those exorbitant amounts which would have made me die a little every time I looked at it.

So, now it’s back to periodic sari shopping cum drama with my mother in-between slumming up my education.

Oh well. Vut to do.

>‘Procrastination is an art.’



Enough already. Enough with the new methods of procrastinating.

We know that when deadlines start looming up, you frantically start looking for means of distraction. We remember the marbling paper incident last year and your mother is yet to recover from the tie and dye debacle the year before that. But, we have to say that your latest is..well.. rather uncharacteristic compared to your habitual tendencies.

You see, over the past years the only times you’ve voluntarily stepped into the kitchen were to raid the fridge, make a solitary salad and break the occasional plate or two. So you have to admit, we were rather taken aback to see you stir, shake, sauté, knead, mix and bake with a vigour and fervor which would’ve put Martha Stewart to shame. All that’s missing actually is the hair cut and the apron.

We’ve come to the conclusion that the research proposal you’ve been resolutely avoiding must be extraordinarily hard, for you to actually seek refuge in the kitchen.

The manner in which you apply yourself to every activity possible, except to what you’re supposed to do is laudable. We’re reluctantly impressed. Maybe, just maybe if you hadn’t played cricket with the boys, you wouldn’t have been too sleepy to examine the mesmeric aspects of the organizational carbon foot print yesterday. And a little less social activity perhaps? Just a suggestion.

What’s that you said dearie? Oh, you tried to work. Yes.. We saw how you bundled your books impressively, arm yourself with a flask of coffee, announce to the world at large that You Were Going to Study (Note the Caps.) and then promptly fall asleep, nose buried in your meticulously highlighted notes. That isn’t work darling, that’s inactivity.

We hate to nag dear, but enough is enough. We would greatly appreciate it if you would hitch your proverbial socks up and get back to work. Now.

Yours extremely pragmatically,

The Society of Prevention of Procrastination

Ps – And for gods’ sakes, stop staring lovingly at John Mayer’s twitter page. It’s getting a bit disturbing.

>Bills, Bills, Bills



We’ve been watching you.

We’ve been watching you for quite some time actually. We watched as you progressed and grew day by day. From a passive passer-by content with window shopping to a frenzied addict, to whom words like ‘50% off’ and ‘Year end Sale!’ could send shivers down your spine.

And we must tell you that we like what we see.

We watched you as you weaved expertly from one store to another. We watched you as you would come home at night and stare at your purse with a bemused look on your face. We saw you buy that beeyootiful red handbag. We were also there when you left the same handbag in the tuk-tuk you rode in.

We decided to enroll you after seeing you on Sunday night, perched on your bed; mars bar in one hand, pencil in the other, surrounded by receipts of every shape and colour. Receipts for multiple tops, trousers slippers, flip-flops (the same pair in three colours. We’re impressed), coloured stoles, handbags, cloth bags, stationary, books, comics, DVD’s you don’t remember purchasing, countless earrings, beads, wire, art paper, restaurant bills (you eat far too much by the way) underwear, tubes of paint, more books, yet more tops, those coloured pebbles you love collecting, food, glassware, ribbons, medicine and err… well you get our drift.

We heaved our bosoms and surveyed you with a combination of maternal pride and pleasure as you stared helplessly, guilt-ridden and dejected, at the mounting pile of bills at your feet.

You are now truly one of us. We look forward to seeing more of you in the year 2009. Welcome to the sisterhood. Have a very merry Christmas.

Yours in all things plastic,

Shopoholics Anonymous.