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Return to roots: Malayalis take lessons in ‘mother tongue’

Author: Sandhya Soman & Mithila Phadke
Publication: The Times of India
Date: September 9, 2014
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/Return-to-roots-Malayalis-take-lessons-in-mother-tongue/articleshow/41903210.cms

Whenever Jaya Nair wanted a traditional Kerala recipe, she would get her mom to dig it up from a Malayalam magazine. Now, she asks her 12-year-old son Akhil to read out the instructions to her. Unlike Jaya, a second generation Malayali-Mumbaikar, Akhil has learned to read and write his mother tongue at one of the many Malayalam classes in the city.

 This newfound passion for Malayalam is to a great extent driven by the Kerala government's Malayalam Mission project, which aims to teach the language to non-resident Malayalis for free since 2011. The response to the classes at various venues here has taken officials by surprise. "Around 2,031 finished the two-year foundation course in 2013. This year, 637 have written the exam," says K Sudhakaran Pillai, registrar, Malayalam Mission. Several people have signed up for the advanced course too.

 Most Malayalis here are happy to get an opportunity to learn another language, especially the mother tongue that will help them get past bus signboards and fussy families in Kerala. "I don't know to read and write and have to rely on others whenever I go home. So, I wanted my son to learn," says Nair. The fact that Akhil can now reel out long proverbs in chaste Malayalam is a plus.

Malayalam Missions classes are held in 23 areas, including Colaba, Matunga, Bandra, Vikhroli, Borivli, Nerul, Vasai and Belapur. Most students come looking for basic reading and writing skills, says Prabha Pradeep, one of the volunteer-teachers in Thane. The focus is not on learning alphabets by rote but getting to know the language through pictures and exercises in text books provided by the Kerala government. In Sheeja Jayaprakash's class in Sanpada, 10 students, aged eight to 13, learnt to speak, read and write in Malayalam through storybooks and rhymes. "Kids learn at different paces, so you have to keep that in mind," says Jayaprakash.

 Though the Kerala government has given free handbooks for parents and set aside Rs 25 lakh this year too, the project is dependent on the effort of home-makers-turned-teachers and co-ordinators who work for free. Pradeep, who along with two colleagues, teaches 16 students, including a bank manager, rues that not all students are regular. "The first batch's students are not that fluent. At least they are talking in their mother tongue and watching Malayalam programmes," she says.

 This is a departure from the days when Mumbai Malayalis brought out the language mainly during special occasions and annual Kerala trips. The samajams or associations, which used to be the first port-of-call for migrant Malayalis, limited their cultural work in the late 1960s fearing further backlash from Shiv Sena, says Dinesh Kodakkat, a Dombivli-based co-ordinator. Many avoided openly proclaiming their linguistic identity after attacks on South Indian migrants. The situation started changing with the cable TV channel explosion in the 1990s that beamed several Malayalam channels and a sense of identity back into the living rooms. However, not many found time to send children for classes conducted at samajams. "The project with its fun teaching method has been able to cater to the need for a Malayali identity," says Kodakkat.

 The third and fourth-generation Malayalis wouldn't dream of returning to Kerala. "I get asked to take crash courses for those getting transferred to Kerala or from non-Malayalis marrying Malayalis," says P V Vijay Kumar, managing editor, 'Kerala In Mumbai' magazine. The Mission classes also are tailored to help students do everyday things - prepare notices, reports and letters.

 For some, increased fluency means better opportunities in Kerala's entertainment industry. Dinesh's daughter got a part in a Malayalam movie while fellow co-ordinator, Prema Menon's son Niranj acts in a TV serial. The classes have also brought a new life to the annual Onam celebrations with more youngsters participating, says Menon.

Some like Ranjana Menon decided to teach themselves. The IT employee grew up speaking fluent Malayalam but couldn't read or write. "I didn't have time for classes, so I got one of those 'Learn To Speak Malayalam' books from the library," she says, laughing. "I have learnt to read only basic stuff so far, but acha (dad) is very proud." A different kind of home-coming this is for sure.
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