How We Came to Be a Multicultural Family – Kerala, the 1980s

Kerala, the 1980s

My husband’s family is from Tamil Nadu, the eastern state at India’s southern tip, but he grew up in Kerala, the western state at India’s southern tip. From thousands of miles away it might not be easy to tell them apart. Zoom in and you’ll notice significant differences.

Here are those I have become aware of. Kerala is tropical and lush, a touristic bonanza, while Tamil Nadu is more rugged and dry, being on the leeward side of the Western Ghats mountains that prevent the monsoon clouds from crossing over. Roads and buildings are generally in a better shape in Kerala than in Tamil Nadu.

Kerala’s government has been fairly consistent and effective over the years, arguably the most convincing experiment in tropical socialism — the Left Democratic Front, often in charge, is a wing of the Communist Party of India. Tamil Nadu’s politics on the other hand are messy with a distinctly populist streak. Larger than life Jayalalithaa, “Amma” (“mother”) to her many fervent supporters, was the state’s elected leader and dominant figure for many years. A former movie actress with lavish tastes, she passed away a couple of years ago.

Then, there is language. Tamil is the language of Tamil Nadu. The Keralites speak Malayalam. Tamil and Malayalam have common origins but their alphabets overlap only in part. Of the two, Tamil is the more ancient language and has spread widely across south eastern Asia over the last two millennia. Not surprisingly, both neighboring peoples tend to typecast each other. Keralites are prone to describe Tamils as dramatic and agitated while Tamils generally see Keralites as materialistic and less cultured.

As I explained in a previous post, my father-in-law (aka Thatha in this blog) was an engineer at the Indian Space Agency, based in Trivandrum, Kerala. The families of the Agency’s staff lived together on a closed campus that included a rocket launch pad, a school, and various facilities. At home Appa and his sister would speak Tamil. Outside they usually spoke Malayalam or English because the families onsite came from all over India and had different native languages. At school they were taught in English and Hindi.

Growing up, Appa did not always tell his new Kerala acquaintances he was Tamil. He would disclose his origin only to those he felt most comfortable with. He thought the others might make fun of him for being Tamil and he did not care to be the butt of stereotypical jokes. His sense of vulnerability completely vanished when he was staying in his grandparents’ village in Tamil Nadu. There he belonged without questions, he felt free to do as he pleased.

Appa sometimes jokes that Minette’s birth has made his sense of Tamil identity stronger than it ever was before. Consistently speaking Tamil to her, taking her to Tamil school, traveling to Tamil Nadu with her, he deliberately connects her (and himself) with a heritage he did not pay much attention to growing up, in part because his family comes from a region of Tamil Nadu close to Kerala where spoken Tamil is somewhat blended with Malayalam. So much so that, to people from other parts of Tamil Nadu, he sometimes sounds like a Keralite speaking Tamil.

The truth, I have come to realize, is that Appa was multicultural long before he left India in his early twenties. The sense of in-betweenness was there from the onset. Because he was a (somewhat incognito and conflicted) Tamil in Kerala. Because he originally came from a region of confluence of the Tamil and Keralite cultures. Because he spoke several languages every day. Because he was exposed to English very early on and an avid reader in English almost as early. And perhaps not so incidentally, because he grew up with the songs and memories Thatha had brought back from his trip to Europe.

We grew up very differently that way. For me, navigating between languages and cultures was a highly desirable goal. For him, it was a fact of his life, both routine and sometimes anxiety producing. Here we are now, raising our multicultural daughter. We often agree and sometimes differ on how to do this. I have a sense that our differences stem not only from our personalities and original cultures but also from the fact that only one of us has experienced first hand what it means to grow up multicultural. And that’s not me…

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