Day 19: Last Read Book in the Mother-tongue

Well, okay– I have read exactly one book in my mother-tongue Maithili. That is not something I am proud of, but I take heart from the fact that most people of my generation in the community have probably read none at all. The book I read was a collection of recipes from the Mithila, written by an elderly acquaintance cum distant relative who is now no more. It was a decent cookbook in terms of the number of recipes contained but had no pictures– and cookbooks, to my mind, are incomplete without pictures. It still finds space on my bookshelf and acts as a valuable reference guide on festivals and special occasions.

The reason why I have not read more books in Maithili is simple–there just aren’t too many books to be read. Those that are there are mostly scholarly tomes which are difficult to make sense of  or to find an interest in. If there were to appear a list of endangered languages, Maithili would probably be there amongst the top entries. Not only is the number of native speakers small, it is rapidly dwindling, with fewer and fewer younger members of the community being able to speak it well. The reasons are many and beyond the scope of this post–but a major reason, according to me, is that it is difficult to ‘write’ this language. Not unlike French and German, or English for that matter, the words are not spelt exactly as they are spoken. Such languages are properly and widely mastered only if they are taught in school, and since there were always relatively few speakers to begin with, it never ever got around to being taught in school.

Maithili was and still is the only language we ever spoke at home. I don’t remember being taught to read or write Maithili–I guess my brother and I just picked it up reading the letters that our grandparents and parents wrote to each other. Gradually we began to write to the grandparents in the language too.

My daughters speak the language very well, which is a matter of some joy for me–though they cannot read or write due to no exposure to the written form of it. I am aware that my children’s might be the last generation of active Maithili speakers. It is something that must be shrugged off, I suppose, because it cannot be helped much.

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8 Responses to Day 19: Last Read Book in the Mother-tongue

  1. I understand how you feel about this.
    I have never read a book in my native language.

    My native language is a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam.
    We are originally Tamilians but some ancestor, migrated to Paalakkad District in modern Kerala about 2 or 3 hundred years ago.
    Paalakkad (also called Palghat) is a border area. People spoke both languages and mixed them up. During the States Reorganisation of 1955-56, it was included in Kerala. Earlier it was part of the Madras Presidency and was ruled by the British before Independence, unlike other villages around which were ruled by the Maharaja of Cochin.

    My parents and grandparents wrote in Tamil language but used the Malayalam script.
    As a child, I learned at my mothers lap a strange lingo which was basically Tamil in structure and grammar but borrowed richly from Malayalam. Over 40 percent of words were Malayalam words.
    The accent and intonation was strongly Malayalee.
    Today this language is popularly called Paalakkad Tamil.
    It is held in benign contempt by both orthodox Tamilians and orthodox Malayalees.
    I often say, we hang between two stools.
    The Tamilians dismiss us as Malayalees trying to pretend we are Tamilians.
    The Malayalees call us Tamilians masquerading as Malayalees and show us the door, when some of us claim a Kerala identity.

    No literature exists in this language to the best of my knowledge but I have heard discourses in Paalakkad temples from priests who spoke eloquently in this language. Armed with the vocabulary of two rich languages, they used to hold me spell bound.

    Ordinary people belonging to my community, from earlier generations either read Tamil or Malayalam or both. I know friends and relatives who effortlessly switch from one accent to another when they cross the TN/Kerala border.

    I read or write neither of these two. I read and write in English and Hindi. I can’t take any more from our Indian tower of Babel, where I learned (or was forced to learn) Kannada and Gujarati too.

    • I read your account with great interest. I was reminded of a Tamilian friend whose family on the father’s side had been based in West Bengal for the past seven generations. Apparently some Bengali king had been on a trip to Tamil Nadu and asked some of the Brahmins there to settle in Bengal–her ancestors were one of the twenty-odd families who shifted base.

      Her father’s side of the family spoke Bengali at home–they could no longer even understand Tamil, although they had managed to stick to their own food-habits. They also managed to remain staunchly vegetarian at a place where the local population was equally staunchly non-vegetarian!

      My friend’s mother on the other hand had spent all her life prior to marriage in Tamil Nadu, and spoke only Tamil and English. My friend’s parents therefore communicated to each other in English.

      My friend and her sister grew up speaking Bengali and Tamil at home, apart from English at school and Hindi with neighbours and on the streets. The sister spoke to each other mostly in Tamil.

      I once asked her which language she related to the most. She said she was just the slightest bit more comfortable speaking Tamil, although she was very fond of Bengali too and was determined never to stop speaking it.

      Our Indian tower of babel is formidable indeed 🙂

  2. Jas says:

    You have at least read one. I have not read even one in my mother tongue and I wonder now why.

    • You should, Jas. Punjabi literature is so vibrant and multi-hued–I say this because I once read a collection of Punjabi short stories translated into English and really liked it.

  3. simple girl says:

    that was a nice anecdote about maithili..

  4. Interesting and sad at the same time. I have not heard about Maithili :-/ excuse my ignorance, which part of the country speaks this language? Ofcourse, am now off to search wiki and google!

    • Gayathri, this language is spoken in six or seven districts of Northern Bihar, with districts Madhubani and Darbhanga being the most important centers of Mithila culture and the Maithili language. It is also spoken in the bordering areas of Nepal.

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