An illiterate in a land of literates

In a state where there is linguistic pride, it can become a trifle embarrassment to be a Malayali and yet not be able to

Published: 03rd March 2012 01:08 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:28 PM   |  A+A-


THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: “Why can’t you read the sign yourself?” says the silver-haired man in a rude voice. It is a valid point. I had asked him in Malayalam where the bus is going. He assumes that since I speak the language, one should know how to read and write. But unfortunately this is not true. I grew up in Kolkata and never learnt to read Malayalam. One speaks the language because my parents always spoke Malayalam at home.

Living in Kerala for the past eight years, it has been a bitter-sweet experience. Sometimes, during interviews -- I work for this newspaper -- the subjects will proffer press releases which are written in Malayalam. I will stare at it, pretend to read it, flip through the pages, nod the head sagely, and carry on with the questioning, even though some will insist, “It is all there in the release.” It is humiliating and embarrassing to say that one does not know to read Malayalam.

When to some, one plucks up the courage and proclaim ignorance, they look amazed. I am probably the first illiterate they are seeing in a state of nearly 100 percent literacy.  Summoning more courage, there is a request to use simple words. Or sometimes, I will ask the meaning of a word straightaway.

And this inability to read has led to embarrassing incidents. Once, at a wedding reception, the toilets were placed on the outside of the building, but the signs for men and women were in Malayalam. Unluckily, there were no drawings to indicate which is which. And, inevitably, one entered the woman’s toilet where a group of young women first looked stunned and then let out squeals. Unfortunately, it was not of delight, but of panic. A quick sprint enabled me to escape a couple of pot-bellied knights in shining armour advancing towards me. Not an amusing moment at all.

But the children find my predicament amusing. With an obvious sense of glee, my nine-year-old son reads out the name of Malayalam films from posters pasted on walls. The 11-year-old daughter indicates which bus to take when we travel short distances. So, out of compassion, perhaps, both of them will always speak to me in English, while it is Malayalam with everybody else. “There is one good result of your ignorance,” says the wife. “The children have learnt to speak English well.”

In this sort of environment, it is with a sense of relief that one meets an English-speaking person. And then I yap and yap, like an over-excited dog. You can also be the butt of misconceptions. Once while travelling on a local train, a group of Bengali college students, visiting the tourist sights in God’s Own Country, assumed that their fellow passenger was a Malayali and made mocking references in Bengali to my [slight] paunch and [rapidly] receding hairline. Instead of getting angry, it was quite amusing. The Bongs conclude that I am a Mallu, while I feel I am a half-Bong, and the Mallus think I am weird. To echo a super-hit Malayalam song: when will all this confusion end?


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