Sunday, February 26, 2012

An illiterate in a land of literates

By Shevlin Sebastian

“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, I should know how to read and write. But unfortunately this is not true. I grew up in Kolkata and never learnt to read Malayalam. I speak the language because my parents always spoke Malayalam at home.

Living in Kochi for the past eight years, it has been a bitter-sweet experience. Sometimes, when I am doing interviews -- I work for the New Indian Express newspaper -- the subjects will proffer press releases which are written in Malayalam. I will stare at it, pretend that I am reading it, flip through the pages, nod my head sagely, and carry on with my questioning, even though some will insist, “It is all there in the release.” It is humiliating and embarrassing to say that I don't know to read Malayalam.

When to some, I do pluck up the courage and proclaim my ignorance, they look amazed. I am probably the first illiterate they are seeing in a state of nearly 100 per cent literacy. Summoning more courage, I request some to use simple words. Or sometimes, I will ask the meaning of the 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 for me, there were no drawings to indicate which is which. And inevitably I 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 my children find my predicament amusing. With an obvious sense of glee, my nine-year-old son reads out the name of films from posters pasted on walls which I point at. My 11-year-old daughter indicates to me, in an authoritative voice, which bus we need 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,” my wife tells me. “The children have learnt to speak English well.”

In this sort of environment, it is with a sense of relief that I meet an English-speaking person. And then I yap and yap, like an over-excited dog.

I am also 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 I am a Malayali and made mocking references in Bengali to my [slight] paunch and [rapidly] receding hairline. Instead of getting angry, I found it amusing. The Bongs conclude that I am a Mallu, while I feel I am a half-Bong, while the Mallus think I am weird. To echo a super-hit Malayalam song, 'Confusion Theerkamane': when will all this confusion end?

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)


  1. haha nice read shevlin,appreciate your sense of humour and its nice that you can take the joke onto yourself!!

  2. Anonymous3:15 PM

    Shevlin,I identified so very much with the article.I too row the same boat as you do.I have put yr blog on my favourites page.Best regds ,....Reji

    1. Thanks Regi, glad to know that you liked it.