Summer holidays back when we were growing up meant family get-togethers. The four of us - my parents, my brother and I - would drive down to Tamil Nadu from wherever we happened to be living to visit my father's side of the family or we would drive to Mysore where my mother's parents lived. Alternatively, family came to visit us. We moved every two years to a new town or city and visiting us was, therefore, always an adventure. And then there were the weddings and upanayanams* that had seasons of their own. Auspicious days occurring during a few months of the year meant wedding dates and dates for other rituals were crammed into those few months.
While the summer holidays, weddings and other occasions had a charm all their own and were eagerly anticipated, they were by no means the only times the families converged. Whenever we lived in the same town as my mother's or father's siblings, Sunday afternoons meant everyone would gather in one house for a massive lunch. I could never figure out how it happened, who planned it or who called everyone else, but there we were in the midst of a gaggle of aunts, uncles and cousins, chowing down food until we could eat no more, my father's deep laughter resonating around the house, my uncles backing him up with cackles of their own, my aunts picking an argument with my father just because, and whoever the host was packing dinner for the guests in steel tiffin boxes to be hauled away at the end of the visit in buttis (plastic baskets with handles).
Amidst the laughter and fake arguments and the heady aromas and family rituals and gossip that enveloped us children like a warm blanket, one curious fact at these gatherings was (and is) a great source of delight to me. At any point in time we were liable to hear any one of four languages** - English, Kannada, Telugu or Tamil - floating in the air. It was, as far as I knew, unique to our family.
Since the pieces of this puzzle were in place way before I was born, I have never known anything other than my parents speaking to each other and with us children in one language (Telugu) and with their siblings and in-laws in two separate languages (Kannada and Tamil), all generously interspersed with English. It was only when I got older and visited my friends' homes that I realized that it was not normal at all.
The explanation for how this came about is innocuous enough - my father grew up in Tamil Nadu, my mother in Karnataka. One day my mother's aunt came with a marriage proposal for my mother. That aunt and one of my father's sisters were somehow related through an earlier marriage. It has been explained to me a hundred times, but I still don't get it (the next time around, I'm sitting down with a pencil and paper when I talk to my parents about this). But because they grew up in different states speaking different languages - Kannada in my mother's case and Tamil in my father's - how would my parents speak to each other? The elders talked about it a little and came up with a solution, a lingua franca - a third different language, Telugu - one that my maternal grandmother and mother knew how to speak and one that my dad spoke with his sisters-in-law and his sisters. Although each of their versions of the language was corrupted from being secondary to their main tongues, they could manage. And so they got married.
In time, my father became fluent in Kannada and my mother learned to speak and read Tamil, but they stuck to the original plan of speaking in Telugu to each other. So family events in which both sides of the family were present looked somewhat like this:
My parents spoke to each other and to us in Telugu; my father spoke to his brothers and brothers-in-law in Tamil, to his sisters-in-law and sisters in Telugu, to my mother's siblings in Kannada, to my maternal grandmother in Telugu and to my maternal grandfather in Kannada; my mother spoke to her parents, brothers and sisters and associated in-laws in Kannada, to all of my father's family in Telugu; my maternal grandmother spoke to my mother in Telugu (but my mother unfailingly responded in Kannada), and she spoke in Kannada to the rest of her children; my maternal uncles and aunts spoke to each other in Kannada; my paternal uncles and aunts spoke to each other in Tamil, but they spoke to the sisters-in-law in Telugu; my mother's nieces and nephews spoke to her in Kannada and the ones on my father's side spoke to her in Telugu; my brother and I spoke to cousins from my father's side in Telugu and to the ones from my mother's side in Kannada.
Depending on the participants, the same conversation would be had in all three languages, with everyone following and not missing a beat, and any exclamatory statements and pronouncements would be made in English. As in, "But that is preposterous!" to sum up someone's less than desirable stance on an issue. And sermons about bad behavior or life lessons were almost always in English.
As I tried to lay out and trace this bowl-of-spaghetti lingual connections to someone I worked for years ago when I moved to the US, he wondered if all this meant my brain was wired differently from his. It is quite possible that it is, but the one abiding lesson my parents tried to drill into us was respect for languages, and by extension, cultures. My father does not hesitate to express immediate and visceral disgust for anyone who puts down a language or culture. He maintains a small pocket dairy in which he notes down unfamiliar turns of phrases or new words he comes across in magazines or newspapers (he finds a boatload of them in The Atlantic Monthly magazine every time he comes here) and takes great pleasure in using them.
And if you thought I'd had my fill of languages to last me a lifetime, my husband speaks an entirely different dialect of Kannada than I do - the North Karnataka dialect. So when I first got to know his family, I, who had grown up speaking the language and studying it in school, stared at them a few times with a blank face trying to piece together what they said and trying to make sense of it in the context.
Over the years, our different languages and dialects have been a source of fun, too. My mother-in-law or my husband try to say something in Telugu with rather hilarious results, and they look at my face in anticipation when they use a particularly obscure word in the North Karnataka dialect.
Now all I need to figure out is how we're going to pass on this treasure to our children. My son picked up Kannada during our three-year stay in Bangalore and my daughter, who thought anything that did not sound like English was, by default, Spanish (courtesy Dora), now can identify Kannada words when she hears them. I have a strong feeling that the iron is hot and this summer is the time to strike it. The kids and I have planned to set aside an hour a day to speak exclusively in Kannada during the summer. I want them to be able to converse in the languages of our families without inhibitions, and am not really particular about them being able to write or read in those languages. Although if that does happen, no one will be more delighted than me.
* I wrote about my son's Upanayanam, a thread ceremony marking the passage from boyhood to the life of a student, here.
** The Government of India recognizes 22 official Indian languages. There are hundreds of dialects of each of these languages.