A Love Letter To The Languages That Take Me Home

The languages we grow up with give us a lot more than a tool for effective communication; they become catalysts in our self-discovery, weaving a story for us to understand and share with others along the way. 

I spent most of my childhood in a cosy corner room on the terrace of my grandparents’ house. With three cantankerous children and the length of one empty terrace to fit their lives in, I’m surprised my parents had any time left to contribute to our mental and linguistic development. Nonetheless, I learnt some of my favourite words, my ‘Schatz’ (German for ‘treasure’) — ‘Mumma,’ ‘Papa,’ ‘Bhaiya,’ ‘Pearl,’ ‘Dadi’ — stole them from my parents’ lips every time they kissed me goodnight, locked them on the tips of my tongue and trapped them in the back of my throat like the precious gemstones they were, all in the ambit of that one little room. Fifteen years later, and they’re still my favourite combination of letters, favourite words to repeat when I’m craving a sense of comfort and familiarity, and the sweetest sounds to my ears. 

According to the Internet, my love language is “words of affirmation”. A substantial chunk of my heart is reserved solely for housing the words I adore the most, lines in literature that are so beautiful that I have to read them twice or thrice before I underline them for later, favourite blessings and compliments that I’ve received over the years, and words that have made me feel the most understood, seen and appreciated. Nothing’s more gladdening than knowing that if I wish, I can end every arduous day with a book in my hand and a cup of chai to fit the setting. If not, there’s always a Pinterest board full of Rilke, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver and Beau Taplin’s writings to peruse till I fall asleep. There’s another one wherein I religiously save words I find myself instantly attached with: 

‘ala rasi’ — ‘anything for you,’ ‘attraversiamo’ — ‘let’s cross over,’ ‘eutony’ — ‘the pleasantness of the sound of a word.’

Growing up, I heard every sentence in a combination of at least two out of Hindi, English and Punjabi. Mumma’s bedtime story of choice, Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwala,’ a heartwarming musical tale about familial love, was mostly narrated in Hindi, followed by a protection Shabad in Gurbani, which she’d made us memorise before most play school rhymes. 

Even today, every time I feel the need to pray for something or someone, I pray to a God I only believe in because my mother does, in a language I don’t fully understand, because it’s as close as I can get to my mom’s language of love— her constant prayers for us that never leave her room, never make a big deal about themselves, never ask for anything in return. I now write in English, speak in Hindi, or whatever feels comfortable in the moment, pray in my mother’s language and steal words from Urdu, Italian, Spanish and all other languages I can find something to cherish in, to add to my very own, carefully curated dictionary. 

Languages are a lot more than just a tool; it’s the foundation of all understanding in the universe, it’s a weapon that can cause even the most wicked to fall to their knees, it’s a holy hand on the heads of those who are suffering, those who are resisting. One wrong word from someone you love can make your entire world come to a standstill for weeks on end. One right word can be the sign you’ve been looking for to wait, to hold on, to keep going. 

A girl’s best friends— her books (Source: Tumblr)

When we’re kids, we don’t fully understand what the ability to read, comprehend, communicate and translate does for us. We think of languages the way we think of other subjects— something we can learn once, add to our skill set and get done with. It’s only later, when we become a lot more introspective and appreciative, that we realise just how lonely we would be without books, without an outlet for what we can’t make sense of till it has left our system, without the words to tell people how gut-wrenchingly upset we feel, without the ability to tell them just how incapable of love we’d feel if they weren’t there to receive it from us. There’s a quote by James Baldwin that I hold extremely close to my heart— “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” I don’t think there are any words to better explain just how fundamental reading is to understanding the full spectrum of the human experience. 

Truly, there’s nothing in the world as honest, and ironically, magical as the ability to communicate, even when we’re on the receiving end of information. Who says languages need be a barrier? I once read a quote by Rilke that planted a question in the back of my mind for years and years before I realised there wasn’t a single answer that could suffice:

Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?

Must I Write? (Source: Pinterest) 

I, frankly, still don’t know. I don’t think writing is something I’d die for, but it most definitely sounds like the perfect incentive to wake up every day; when I’m writing is one of the only times I feel like I might have a purpose in life, the other being when something I do or say delights or eases another person. For that reason alone, I know I must continue to write, to read, to absorb, to share, to express, to do whatever I can to get through all that’s heavy and unbearable. 

Every word we come across, fall in love with, collect, remember or save takes on a life of its own when we put it down on paper. Every word used contributes to the ‘powerful play that goes on,’ and yet, somehow, says a lot more about the communicator than its inherent meaning allows. These languages we grow up with weave a story for us to understand and share with others along the way; they become catalysts in our self-discovery, allowing us to experience a lifetime’s worth of changes within ourselves, while not a hair moves on the outside. 

Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, “Poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” 

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Feature Image Credits: Wattpad

Shirley Khurana