If you are a Malayali living in any part of the world, and if you are middle-aged or thereabouts (or older), you will know what I am going to talk about.

Those of us who regularly surf Malayalam TV channels have inevitably cringed and flinched and blanched and winced at the weird accent that flows out of those so-called-Malayalis who rule Prime Time TV. We have secretly and publicly mocked and laughed at and insulted these people to our heart’s content. We have easily blamed their parents for not teaching them our beautiful language, for not correcting their Anglicised accent, for not telling them that though chetta and Chetta are spelled the same in English, there is a world of difference between the two.

But let me start at the very beginning… a very good place to start…
*A crimson Sun rises over the Western Ghats & Suprabhaata plays in the background*

The population of the world is divided into four groups : Malayalis, semi-Malayalis, adopted-Malayalis & non-Malayalis.

The first, Malayalis whom others fondly call Mallus, are born and brought up in Kerala; they think and talk in Malayalam, they also dream in Malayalam, when they are angry they swear in Malayalam (sometimes using words borrowed from friendly neighbourhood Tamil), when they wake up they read a Malayalam newspaper, they love Kilukkam, most of their lives they have lived in places where Malayali voices float in from outside, when they go out to a shop or in a bus, they are greeted (or abused) in Malayalam, and they have a special love-hate relationship with hartals, rains, alcohol and communism. A real Malayali is defined by more or less a blend of these, and much more.

Adopted Malayalis were once born as non-Malayalis but due to circumstances or fate (usually a mix of both) have learnt to understand the Malayali culture and speak Malayalam like an authentic one. (Much like the Punjabi family of Punjabi House.)

Semi-Malayalis are those quirks of nature who were brought up outside Nammude Kochu Keralam as Non-Resident Keralites, and as a result know precious little about their homeland and its fragilities, and they speak like foreigners. (I don’t mean half-Malayalis). Yes, they are our topic of discussion today.

(Some of my friends would argue that though they were brought up as NRKs, they have the characteristics and mannerisms of a full-fledged Malayali. Full marks to them. 
I also know of another set of people who try very hard to conceal the fact that they are Malayalis, and they go through such troubles to not let anyone overhear when they are forced to speak in their mother tongue. 
There are obviously some overlaps.
Then there are half-Malayalis. Expecting them to behave like one of us is totally unfair.)

Non-Malayalis, of course, are the rest of the world.

If you know who you are, then you know who these people are too. Nee aaranennu ninakkariyillenkil nee ennodu chodickku nee aaranennu… etc. etc. 

*Zoom into a particular slice of time, chenda melam in the backdrop*

Some time before my son was born, I happened to work with a Malayali born and brought up in Pune. His accent was worse than that of a Westerner learning an Indian language. One day, overhearing both of us discussing the project in English, a colleague commented, “Why are two Malayalis conversing in English?” Without a moment’s hesitation, I snapped, “I don’t consider him a Malayali.” The Pune NRK smiled good-naturedly. Later he confessed that he spoke to his parents in Malayalam but most of his time was spent with friends and others, which explained his accent. I wasn’t convinced. I said to myself that surely he spoke to his parents in Hindi or Marathi or whatever language Pune-folk used.

Fate has its own weird and twisted sense of humour, people. When my son was born, I was determined that he would speak, think, dream and shout in Malayalam like a 24-carat Malayali. When others in Kerala and Bangalore admired his perfect two-year-old accent, I beamed and burst with pride. Then came school. I realised for the first time that he did not know a word of Kannada, English or Hindi to communicate. His ayahs knew only Kannada and pieces of Hindi, and none of his teachers spoke Malayalam. A Communication Disaster was knocking at my little baby’s doors.

But he survived. A few weeks later, he demonstrated the words he had picked up from other languages, and I was impressed (and enormously relieved). Things started to go downhill from there – I think. His friends circle consisted of Malayalis, Tamilians, Kannadigas and Andhraites, and their common language became English. Even when only Malayali friends are around, they forget to switch language and would continue in English. When he comes running in from play, he begins with “Do you know what happened?” or “Amme, can I play for some more time?” When I roll my eyes at him, he thinks for a few minutes and then slowly understands why I did so, and then restarts in Malayalam. If I roll my eyes every time he does that, there wouldn’t be much left of my eyes. Sometimes, rather than bothering with the eye-rolling routine, I confess I’m guilty of replying in English too. A friend, who overheard him one day, observed sarcastically: “You should teach your son a little Malayalam.” Seriously! After all this effort, this is what I get to hear. Just you wait, I thought, your baby will soon start speaking – then you’ll know!

When one day my son, then six years old, began to talk about “Njaan oru tree-yil climb cheythu” — I almost fainted – and it was not because he was climbing a tree. Terrified out of my wits, I began to roll my eyes harder, and pretended to not understand a word of what he was saying until he used all words in Malayalam. (Another time, in the middle of an interesting story, he said frustrated, “I can’t remember the Malayalam word for camel !”) Every time this happens, the good-natured smile of my Pune NRK friend flashes before my eyes.

At seven and a half years, my son takes the hint and corrects himself, but a few years from now, he may not bother.

In every visit to Kerala, I observe how effortlessly and clearly the children there speak, how well they understand synonyms of a word simply because they hear these words from different people around them, and I realise it isn’t as easy as I thought. It is even harder since my son does not get to learn Malayalam in school. (Which is another heavy responsibility of an NRK parent.)

One little girl who lives next door to us in Bangalore, who spent the first five years of her life in Kerala, speaks such delightful Malayalam that I make sure I converse with her whenever I see her. (I also shamelessly show my displeasure when her choice of words extends unnecessarily to English.) I suppose the early years spent steeped in Malayaliness do make such a big difference. My son understands his mother tongue very well, but there are some phrases and words that he may not come across at all, over here. There is no way I can teach him those. I taught him to count in Malayalam, painstakingly, at least till twenty, and then in spurts of ten until hundred, but the important part is that, today when he needs to count something, it comes out as onnu, randu, moonu instead of one, two, three. It wasn’t easy, people. It wasn’t easy at all, to say the least.

It was (is) like pushing a heavy rock up the mountain – if I relax for an instant, it would start rolling downhill, and I would have to chase it down. And there are miles to go before I reach the top, to the safe plateau from where no amount of gravity can pull it down.

Sometimes I fear that I try too hard, and he will end up saying something blasphemous like, Oh I hate Malayalam.

But perhaps there is no cause for concern. I meet a lot of folks here who speak Kannada like a native, and Malayalam with a rich, beautiful northern Kerala accent. Maybe those lads were born and brought up somewhere over here, or in places like Mangalore. If they can manage two languages so well, perhaps…

The bottom line is that I have stopped making fun of those Manglishi TV anchors. As a parent, I know how difficult it is, even if we are determined to put in the right amount of effort. It is easier to stop trying. When you have more important things to worry about, it is easier to pretend not to notice.

You’re right, I am pretty much obsessed with this.

Who knows how this story would turn out?

*Sunset over the glorious Arabian Sea*