» Nonfiction

Mother Tongue

“Mommy, you sound strange.” My five-year-old looks at me curiously as I sing in Hindi to her. “It sounds funny,” she says again. I smile and nod and try to explain to her the meaning of my words. But then she is distracted and runs away. This has happened a lot recently as I am trying harder to speak in Hindi with and around my children. I play Kishore Kumar songs from the 1950s to them in the car, and I read them Hindi comics that I used to enjoy as a child, bought for an eye-watering price over the internet. But then words often fail me, as I try to grasp wispy words and feathery nuances that sound alien to my own ears.


I am the only one who speaks and understands Hindi in my house. My husband’s repertoire is limited to the words he has learned while ordering takeaway from the local Indian “curry” place: samosa, aaloo, chana. I laugh at his accent and then sometimes find myself repeating the same accent when I make the call to the curry place, impersonating the pronunciation of words, confusedly meandering between the sound that I heard as a child and the ones I hear all around me now. I worry that with this I am losing a part of my childhood and my mother tongue, and my anxiety drowns my words when I worry that my children will never be able to speak Hindi, communicate with their grandmother in India, or watch Hindi movies without subtitles. Sometimes I try and watch Hindi movies alone late at night just to remind myself where I come from, to hear the sounds that are missing from my life. For those few minutes, hours, I feel like the person who used to watch Bollywood movies obsessively as a teenager, singing out loud, playing antakshari with my friends. Often the incongruity of the meaning expressed in the dialogue and its brutal translation that smoothes out all the subtleties and gradations make me laugh, sometimes cringe. But I also feel like an impersonator, an imposter who is pretending to be something I am not. Not anymore. At times I turn the subtitles on. I feel like I am fighting to own a language that is not mine anymore, as if the memory of that language is only an illusion. That person was me, of course. But this is me, too. Where does one end and the other start?



It is strange how language shapes our identity. Am I a different person when I speak in different languages, and are my thoughts mapped by the language that I use to think and to speak in? My eldest daughter has often told me that I resort to Hindi when I am angry. Even though I switch between Hindi and English fluidly without a flicker of a thought or hesitation, no doubt there are things I cannot think or feel in either. Do I take on a different persona, another shift of identity as English becomes my way of communicating in writing and in speech? And in dreams, which are never in Hindi anymore? The rhythm of each language works in different meters, and I slow down when I speak Hindi. There isn’t that rush to get the words out before I forget, the precariousness exacerbated by the ever-present awareness that my accent will always belie my notion of being at home in this English language. But does the core of myself change with these shifts? Do I become less funny, more opinionated, more at ease in one than the other?


I went to a school run by Irish Catholic nuns, all through my primary and secondary education, where we were penalized for speaking in Hindi, the deeply ingrained colonial hangover persisting. We were better if we spoke in a language that wasn’t our own, that marked the gentile from the ordinary. English was the only language that could help us make our way in a world where we were never the desirables. I realize the irony of this as I write now in English. My parents wanted me to be good at English because that was how I would make a place for myself in this world. My mother wanted me to be good at English because she didn’t think she was, and she wanted me to spread my wings in a world that wasn’t designed for women. My father would take me to the only bookshop in town, where they had a tiny selection of books in English: some Enid Blytons and Stephen Kings, occasionally classics such as Gone with the Wind. It was our ritual every month. I wanted to be good at English so that I could read all the books that showed me a world far beyond my own, those books with green pastures and Little Women who were fierce, independent, and strong-willed, the female protagonists of their own life. I wanted to drink elderflower juice and have afternoon tea, not knowing what it tasted like. I loved this window into a new world even as I felt my face flush with embarrassment when my father would proclaim with fatherly pride that “she only reads English books.” This felt like betrayal at times as I read about the imperial rule, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the centuries of British oppression in India. The marks left by colonial rule and partition had seared into our consciousness, and there was no escaping it.


This push and pull persisted as this language of our oppressors slowly became my home, even as Hindi was still the language that bridged the gap between my parents and me.


I still find it fascinating that we studied Hindi as a second language, even though it was our first: it was the language of the first word that I heard, the language of my ancestors, the one that our stories were written in. I keep wondering what the world would have looked like if it hadn’t been like this, if we did not grow up with this shame. And I wonder when I started dreaming and thinking in shapes and patterns that were alien and uncomfortable to my own mother.


My ma felt ashamed all her life that her spoken English wasn’t that good, an inferiority that she carried because my father could speak better English than she could. I have never thought about this deeply: how this shame marred her view of herself and her own place in society; of those times that she would stay quiet, only smiling shyly when she thought that she didn’t know how to talk in public or was anxious that she would say the wrong thing, come across as ignorant and uncouth. So much of that anxiety shaped her mothering, her lack of recognition of her talents. And perhaps that is why it took me so long to acknowledge all that is so luminous about her, as she hid her resplendence from everyone including herself.



Choosing the language we speak is also linked to our autonomy; our view of our body is shaped by the words we speak, the thoughts we think, the space we occupy, and the way our mind inhabits our body.


Growing up with this discomfort around a language that is your own mother’s tongue, hiding it as a dirty secret at home, while only speaking in English at school, creates a split personality, where one has to keep shifting between two worlds of thoughts, words, and dreams, at home in one, in both, and sometimes in neither. Most people I know speak in Hinglish, an amalgamation of both languages, stepping inside both worlds at the same time, equally comfortable with Premchand and Amrita Kaur as with Hilary Mantel or Margaret Atwood. But people carry this unconscious bias that those who can write or speak better English are also better people, this halo spilling over their other attributes, giving them opportunity and privilege, while making others tongue-tied and even more inhibited in their thoughts.


Would our stories be different if this comfort around our own language had not been seeded and planted from a young age, and would the stories we write and tell our children be any different? These switches have become part of my identity, and they are how I belong in both worlds. But sometimes I can feel like an alien in both.


I remember when my eldest daughter came back irate from school, saying that they had pronounced geography incorrectly because that is how they had always heard me say it: “jaw-gruphy.” I laughed, but they didn’t find it amusing at all, though now they have outgrown that adolescent shame of a mother who has accented English, compounded by their classmates giggling at their quirky pronunciation of words that they had grown up with. I still catch myself worrying about how to pronounce words, and whether the way I speak marks me out as other, often searching for the right expression to say what I feel. It takes a while to shift this persona when I am in India, a few days to overthrow this worry about speaking the wrong word or in the wrong accent. Instead, I find myself searching for the right word in Hindi, which has been buried deep inside the mists of my time away from this place. I find myself stuttering over expressions, feverishly searching for the word that would stop me from being marked as a foreigner, and slowly it comes back. I worry less about switching between languages, and it becomes second nature once again, jolting me into a recognition of myself that I keep abandoning as soon as I leave India and fly back to the UK, reminding me how much I miss these words, this language, the poetic sensibilities of expressions that say so much.


I worry about how we can give words to our children when we ourselves feel wobbly around the edges of our languages.



And then I find the five-year-old singing the lullaby that I sing to them on most nights, in her Scouse accent, words that sound jumbled up, but she stands up tall up on the table and performs for us. I clap not just because it is utterly adorable but because hearing her speak those few words of Hindi makes me feel like coming back home, as if I never left, as if the thread from my mother to her is still unbroken, as if my mother tongue might not be hers completely or even mine anymore, but it is still a language that shapes so much of who I am, and hopefully will shape her too. And even though I have fought for my right to belong here in this place and this language, to assimilate and fit in, and I have also struggled to continue to belong to my mother tongue, I can be both or none. My mother tongue still belongs to me even though its edges are tinted with exasperation and frustration at not knowing all the words or at my accent belying my origins. It is seared and etched into my very self and my skin, and I worry less about making my children feel at home with it, because I have to remember that they are never far from home when they are close to me.



Pragya Agarwal

Dr. Pragya Agarwal is a behavioral and data scientist and author of Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias (Bloomsbury, 2020), Wish We Knew What To Say: Talking with Children About Race (Little Brown, 2020), and (M)otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman (Canongate, 2021). She has also written a picture book for children, Standing up to Racism (Hachette, 2021). Pragya is the visiting professor of social inequities and injustice at Loughborough University  and founder of a research think-tank, The 50 Percent Project, looking at global inequities. She is a two-time TEDx speaker and hosted a podcast, Outside the Boxes. Her writing has also appeared in the Guardian, Independent, Scientific American, New Scientist, Literary Hub, AEON, Hinterland Magazine, amongst others. Her next book, Hysterical, will be published in September 2022 with Canongate.