By Aswathy Mohanaprakas
The one thing that all Malayalee youths struggle with at some point in their lives is the issue of cultural identity. Be it that we were born in UK or moved here with parents, we all go through it.
My story is not unlike that of many others my age. Born in Saudi Arabia to parents who worked there, I spent the majority of my childhood in Kollam (Kerala), with dad and a swarm of aunties who had spoilt me and my sister to bits so that we wouldn't miss our working-abroad mum who would visit in the Summers.
The opportunity struck when she found a job in UK (as a nurse, as you've probably guessed), and we began to live as a family at age 11.
Having uprooted my entire childhood structure (quite reluctantly, I must admit), I perhaps felt the identity struggle much more than my younger sister who had not even properly learnt the Malayalam alphabets before we moved (after all, I was the nerdy older sister who used to do her homework in India).
Despite having studied in an "English-Medium School", all of a sudden I found myself having to unlearn the po-tta-ttos and oh-niy-ons and navigate my way through "bo'uhls o' woh'uh" and po-teyh-uhs. Perhaps it was my stubborn need to fit in that drew me to languages. It was a whole different world to the English we spoke back in India with the incentive of 1 rupee fine.
So I immersed myself in this new world. I spent my lunchtimes in school library reading children's books (the kind with big pictures and few words), working my way up to medium sized books and finally fell in love with literature when I read my first Philip Pullman book. I used to keep a notepad, jotting down the books I'd read, and new words I used to look up. It felt like I dug into my first English book at 11 and re-emerged at 14.
The glorious age when cliques, media and boys took up more space in one's brain than the upcoming SATs. I redefined my friendship group, having realised that speaking english with the prop'uh accent opened up a whole new social rank. I repurposed Bharatanatyam make-up for school and thought of how to avoid being classified as a 'boffin', or worse, 'freshie' while secretly hating that Indian kid who has an accent and still gets the most commendations (or credits) and the best overall results in the year.
It was only after I'd started university and moved out (as Jeevan's article
poignantly put it) that I realised how much the cultural associations, dance classes and my family's life ran the 'Malayalee way'. By then, of course, it was too late to reconnect, 90 miles from home and living in a dorm full of non-ethnic mostly middle class ladies (at University of Oxford). Over there, my London youth identity took much more precedence, and they all knew me as that gyal from Land-aan with the accent and all. After only a term, I visited home and my friends told me how I've become 'posh'.
I then thought back to my family's annual visits to India as a teenager. The place I once called home and yearned for was given a makeover under the pretext of cultural "advancement" and became increasingly metropolitan with each visit I had until, all that remained in my heart were a few faded stills of the countryside, lush green coconut trees and the rivers.
When I visited, my cousins would ask for how life was over there; and people there would call me, the girl with the Indian accent, a foreigner to Kerala. Nobody cared whether I spoke Malayalam with an accent. Perhaps it was those words of rejection from my hometown, coupled with my hyper-awareness of myself and limitations that made me pursue an English lifestyle so vehemently.
I stayed away from other Malayalee family friends at school, college, and looked away from the obviously Malayalee tourists/short term students whom I encountered outside. I avoided the 'brown' group at uni as well, for fear of being categorised as being too "clique-y" until I was left with a mish-mash of various cultures constantly engaged in an inner struggle.
Who am I?
A Malayalee? A British Asian? or is my identity that which cannot be reduced to a mere word or two?
I think back to my dance days occasionally. Although our mother had forced us to go in the beginning, enduring years of lost Sundays and awkward bus rides in dance saree/uniforms, I enjoyed it. It had, in a way, kept up a thread of connection with me stretching back to the centuries-old South Indian tradition. I would push past the pain of aramandi, taking the steps which had been taken by thousands, if not millions, of dancers throughout the history. As we all danced, I prided myself in perfecting that art, and taking the mudras as they were intended. And for that moment, time stood still and I felt at home.
I felt alive.
I may not understand how the pieces of my cultural identity fits in together. But for now, I'm content by sharing my story and work through it as we go along.
Aswathy Mohanaprakas (neé Mohanlal) is an Oxford graduate and works in Philanthropy for Oxford during the day, while translating and writing on the side. She is currently working on a translation of an 18th Century Portuguese text cataloguing Malabarese medicinal plants which will be published by the Natural History Museum of London as part of their digitised collection. Aswathy is a regular copywriter on software systems for OFEC, and does editoral pieces for Kerala Link. You can follow her blogs on https://truthflows.wordpress.com