Both sides of my family come from the Indian state of Karnataka, where Kannada is spoken in various forms. It is a South Indian language, related to Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam. However, although it is spoken by vast populations in India, the Kannada-speaking population in America is dwarfed by larger ethnolinguistic South Asian populations, such as Hindi, Telugu, or Gujarati speakers.
This relative lack of population meant that Kannada resources were hard to find, especially in New England, where the Desi community exists in tiny pockets compared to those of Texas or California. I remember driving for what seemed like ages to the Massachusetts Kannada Koota (a social organization for Kannada speakers) sponsored variety shows and performances, only to see the same fifty or so faces year after year. Kannada media wasn’t even available in the U.S. — for years, I had never seen a Kannada movie because they were not even available to rent at my local South Asian grocery store.
“We were always communicating — and more often than not, we were communicating in Kannada.”
Fortunately, the dearth of outside exposure did not hurt my mastery of the language. My mother has a love for Kannada that I found hard to understand when I was a child; as such, she made sure that my brother and I learned it as children and had family conversations in it. When my grandmother was visiting, I had extra reinforcement; even into my teens I’d ask her to tell me stories of Hindu mythology or of her childhood living in a joint family, and she’d happily oblige.
I was even more amazed at my father’s prowess in the language; for his first few years of school, he had attended a “Kannada medium” institution (a school that teaches all subjects in Kannada). This meant that he knew how to say things that I deemed “crazy” — names of elements, words for arithmetic functions, and other technical vocabulary I hadn’t even realized existed.
To me, though, it was always a language that stayed inside. Being a brown kid in the very white Northeast is already a lonely experience; when the few other Desi kids you know have never even heard of the language you speak at home, it’s downright isolating.
To me, Kannada was the language of chores; Amma telling me to study, Appa telling me to clean my room. Kannada was the language of food I deemed “boring” — saaru (the South Indian soup many know as rasam), idli, bisibelebath. Kannada was the language of arguments with my parents, and teasing my brother. It was the language of home, for better or for worse.
“When the few other Desi kids you know have never even heard of the language you speak at home, it’s downright isolating.”
When I moved out for college, I didn’t give much thought to Kannada at all. English had always been my “outside” language; the one I used at school, with friends; my native tongue. I slipped into a state of speaking in English all the time, and seemed to cast off Kannada the same way I cast off the last dregs of childhood. Even when my parents called, I’d respond to them in English; they few times they remarked on this with disappointment, I brushed them off. I didn’t know why they cared, or why it made a difference.
The majority of my Desi friends in college spoke Hindi; luckily, I had a fair enough grasp of the language that I could slide into conversations and understand jokes with ease. A lack of available Kannada media meant that my parents had supplanted with Hindi movies, music, and TV shows, and the accompanying subtitles allowed me to pick up Hindi with relative ease. I felt proud of myself — here I was, this American kid, who had picked up a second Indian language and was proficient enough to converse with native speakers.
Then, I met my now-husband, who is a Tamil speaker. When we met, he had a wide network of roommates and friends, all of whom spoke Tamil to some extent; in my usual fashion, I made it my business to learn the language to incorporate myself into his posse. My efforts paid off, and by the time we were engaged, I was able to understand and speak Tamil to a passable extent. While I was glad to be a part of his social circle, a part of me always felt wistful when communicating in a language that was new to me; I wished I could have the same ease of expression, the same comfort that he did.
“Kannada was the language of arguments with my parents, and teasing my brother. It was the language of home.”
And then it hit me — Tamil is a beautiful language, it has melodic twists and turns and syllables that roll from the tongue like waterfalls — but it is not mine. Its twists and turns come from some academic portion of my brain, not from the emotional portion.
Arguably, I am most comfortable communicating in English; it’s the language I speak in my home now, the language I speak at work, and, sadly, the language I often speak to my parents. However, I realized that all the other languages I speak, including English, my native tongue, do not fill the emotional space that Kannada does for me.
In English, I am a professional woman; one who has a job and manages a household and other responsibilities — I have my stuff together. But in Kannada, I feel things. If I was sick, I could most accurately communicate my ailment in English, but to describe my fatigue, my need for care — that’d be Kannada. Whenever I’m around babies or pets, English fails me; the instinct to nurture and protect has also permanently encoded itself in Kannada for me. Where I am bulletproof in English, I am vulnerable in Kannada. My education and achievements are firmly in English territory, but the support and warmth of my family come to me via Kannada; and thus, I am not a complete person without both languages.
“Where I am bulletproof in English, I am vulnerable in Kannada.”
I don’t have children, but now, as an adult, I see why my mother was so adamant about passing Kannada on to her children. It may not be my native language, but it is my mother tongue — a language that instantly makes me feel at home regardless of where I hear it (even if it’s just a parent scolding their children at the grocery store). And if I ever have children of my own, I’d like to take the same stance my mother did. Even though I live in a multilingual household where the lingua franca is English, there is something irreplaceable to me about Kannada — a language that assures me, and will hopefully assure my future child, that they belong.
* * *
Rashmi Venkatesh is a pharmacologist who now works behind a desk and lives in the Metro D.C. area. Her interests include feminism, pop science, South Asian diasporic culture and media, and biryani. Find her on Twitter at @rashmiv11.