Our Languages

Train Station Signage

A Helpful Chart:

Number of Languages (not including dialects) Spoken in India: 1,652

National Language of India: Hindi

State Language of Karnataka (where Bangalore is): Kannada

Common Language of Bangalore:  English?

Language JP’s parents spoke to him at home: Tamil

Language JP spoke with brother, James:  English

Language JP’s parent’s spoke to each other: Telugu (a particular dialect)

Number of Languages JP learned in school: three

Number of Languages JP can communicate in today:  six

Indian Language we hope that our children will learn:  Tamil 

India speaks 1,652 languages. Nearly as long as I have known JP, I have heard this number rattled off in sermons, presentations, video clips, around dinner tables, in personal conversation, and I even remember being tested on it during one of my bridal shower games!  It is a big and rather overwhelming number.  Even Indians tend to be surprised when they learn there are so many languages spoken in their country.  I always giggle inwardly at their surprise.  Indians seem to overlook and disregard the constant shifting between languages that happens all throughout every single day.  I think I notice it because I am a foreigner, dabbling in a little bit of several languages, but never excelling in one.  Growing up in the midst of so many languages– learning three or four in school, using one language for home, and maybe another for work, and yet another with the auto driver, or the guy selling you a pair of shoes– languages just seem to flow naturally in, and around, and off the tongues of Indians.

Not "My Fruit Vendor," but a Fruit Vendor nonetheless

Example number one:

I have a favorite fruit vendor.  He roams up and down our street, pushing his cart during the afternoon and early evening hours.  He became my favorite fruit vendor when he once sold me 3 kilos (6.6 pounds!) of my favorite fruit, the red banana.  Every time I see him, he is always happy to offer his sweetest, ripest fruit to me with a flourish and an eager smile.

Most every evening, after the office closes, JP and I take Reuben out for a walk in the stroller to the end of the street and back.  Every day we pass “my fruit guy.”  On the days that we stop to buy fruit, I let JP do the talking because English does not seem to be this guy’s forte.  I should mention that many, many people in Bangalore do speak English.  Bangalore is a very cosmopolitan city, and rather than Hindi, English has become the common language among the myriad of Indian and other languages here.  Despite this, I am not bothered or irritated by the fact that the fruit man does not speak to me in my native tongue.  Instead, I have been quite interested in the conversations that take place between him and JP.  He does not usually speak to JP in Kannada, the local (state) language, which is what I would have expected.  Rather, he speaks to JP in Hindi, which is the national language of India, but is more commonly used as the common language in the northern parts of India.  Now, JP does speak Hindi, (and Kannada) but has said a number of times that they’d have a much easier transaction if they just spoke in Tamil, which would the first (heart) Indian language for both of them!!

Fascinating.

Yes, it is interesting on a certain level that this guys speaks to JP in Hindi first, but this happens regularly, and has to do with the way he dresses and the very fair wife that often tags along with him.  What is definitely more interesting to me is that this humble fruit cart vendor, likely uneducated, or not very educated, is able to communicate in at least three languages.  This is so striking to me, coming from a country where even some of our most educated individuals do not speak more than one language, and might not even value speaking in more than a single language.  Here in India, it is very often the case that speaking more than one’s own heart language is both an every day fact of life, and a necessity.

The Sundararajan family can speak 9 different languages!

Example number two:

In January, we went to visit JP’s relatives, and had the chance to eat some of our very favorite Indian bread, called parottas.  Parottas are pretty much delicious when eaten plain, with chutney, or with a special gravy that I learned is called salna.  When it comes to learning a language, I seem to have the easiest time remembering words for food.  So, given my affection for parottas (and something yummy to dip them in) I had no trouble filing this new word, salna, into my brain.

Fast forward to sometime in the middle of March.  We’re sitting at the table eating lunch with JP’s parents and his grandfather, Tata.  Mom is serving Tata, and I keep hearing her say “Salna?”  Tata, seemingly engrossed in his food, replies, “Salma.”   This sort of exchange happens at almost every meal, and sometimes multiple times during the meal.  Ever since January, that little salna file card in my brain flutters a bit every time this conversation takes place.  However, on this day in March, the conversation did not compute.  We were not having gravy.  There was not any salna on the table.

Later, I asked JP about this and learned that Mom was actually asking, in another language, Sal na? (Is that enough?) and Tata was responding, Sal ma. (Enough, dear.)  Interestingly, no one else around the table had ever once thought about the similarity between word and phrases in the two languages– and they all speak these two languages!  This is what I mean when I say that people here in India are so surrounded by, and used to navigating between, multiple languages that they are

Example number three:

This past weekend, JP’s cousins’ family came to visit.  This meant that Leila got to meet and play with their little girl, Kaushika, for the first time. They put on a delightful cooking show for us after Sunday dinner.  I can’t help but put it with this post because I feel it illustrates to a certain extent 1) the multi-lingual world in which I spend my time… you’ll hear English, Tamil, and Telugu in the background, and 2) the beauty of learning to play together in this multi-lingual world.  This was not the first language that Leila has learned to play in, and I hope it won’t be the last!

Happy.

Happy

Every time that I look at the pictures we took of these canopies at a beach-side, shack restaurant in Goa, I feel happy.

So Happy.

In mid-March, the four of us went on a 5-day vacation to Goa.  I felt like I was in a different country.  While Goa is definitely part of India– an overnight train ride for us, to be exact– there were a handful of things that made it feel like I had left the subcontinent, and entered a new reality.  (Certainly, the fact that everywhere we went we saw a bunch of white people driving around on scooters influenced my sense of place and reality!)  Goa is one of the more touristy, beachy, vacation spots of India.  I saw more flesh in Goa, during 5 days, than I have seen all put together in nine years of travels throughout the country!  I ate pizza in Goa, and it was good.  I played at the beach, wearing a bathing suit.  I swam in a beautiful pool at the the restort where we stayed, and it was cool and refreshing, and simply put: glorious.  All of these experiences made me feel like I was in a different country, but vacation, is what made it seem like a different reality.

train bound for Goa

Vacation has been a formative part of my reality.  Growing up, my family took a vacation each year.  We weren’t rich, so vacation meant “camping on a shoe string.”  However, despite the modest, leaky camper and tent accommodations, and the outdoor cooking, we adored our vacations.  I loved to wake up in my sleeping bag, and hear the sound of pine needles falling on the canvas roof of the tent.  I was mesmerized by the maze of those fallen needles. I could smell them, baking there in the sun, on their canvas skillet.  I loved to rise up and eat pancakes from the griddle.  I loved our long, lazy days at the beach, and the evenings spent peddling my bike round and round the pavement circle that housed the many campsites.  I loved the hamsteaks on the grill, complete with  buttered sweet potatoes.  I listened eagerly to the ghost stories my dad made up around the campfire.  And, I liked to sit as long as the grown ups allowed, around that fire, burning the tip of my “smoking stick” to ash.

Vacation.  I was free as a bird, brown as a berry, happy as a clam.

Doesn't a coconut tree just evoke a greater sense of vacation in you!?

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, maybe just a change of seasons in my life, but I nearly forgot about vacation.  I almost forgot about that free and happy self that bubbled up toward the surface of my life during vacation.  JP and I have not been good about taking proper vacations.  We find ourselves on the road, travelling, quite often– both in the US and in India.  Somehow, these travels tricked my brain into thinking it was vacation… but I don’t think my heart was ever fooled.  In Goa, my heart remembered the goodness of vacation.  It is another reality.  It is a place where tension rolls down off tense shoulders to a sandy floor, and stays there.  It is a space that opens up inside me, and feels like warm sun.  It is a taste of food, different food, rich and filling.  Vacation is a smile on my face, and a song in my heart.  

Reuben's first taste of Vacation

I want my husband and my children to know the goodness of vacation.  I once learned that Jewish mothers, at the end of the Sabbath, would place a candy on the tongues of their children so that they would remember the sweetness of the Sabbath.  I love that image.  I do believe that God blessed us with our vacation rest in Goa.  Even now, the sweetness of it lingers on my tongue, and the stress that rolled off my shoulders remains on that sandy beach. I am grateful for Goa, for the things that it reminded me of, and the things that it blessed me with, and for the things that it helped me hope for.

Yup. Happy.

 

The Fan

We’ve recently returned from vacation, and I hope to post some reflections soon about how nicely that trip soothed our souls. Until then, here are a few snippets on the way life goes for us in India these days, all centered around the fan.

REUBEN

For quite some time, Reuben has adored the fan. (Many babies like fans, I think.) I am sure he likes the motion of the fan, and I know he also likes its breeze. The fan was the first thing Reuben acknowledged, with a gesture, in front of an audience. If you were to ask Reuben about his best friend, I think he might point toward the fan.

LEILA

Miss Leila is dying to be able to speak Tamil, the language spoken by JP’s family. I believe that Leila understands a lot more than she is able to verbally reproduce, and that means Leila speaks a lot of gibberish these days- sometimes to us, sometimes to Tata and Ava, and sometimes to the room at large (and any imaginary play friends that might be present.) One of the actual phrases that Leila has picked up, and that she uses frequently is, “Fan enga?” A favorite game with Reuben is, “Where’s Reuben?” or “Reuben, where is Tata?” or “Reuben, where’s the fan?” (Fan enga?) Leila has made this phrase her own. You can hear her play, Reuben enga? often. She loves to say, Fan enga? And, much to my consternation when I was trying to find Reuben’s towel the other night, she just kept saying, Towel enga? instead of helping me find the towel! For the rest of my Tamil-speaking life, I am sure Leila will end up being my little translator.

Best Buddies

JP

Two days ago, rather out of the blue, JP said to me, “There is no sound more gratifying than that of the fan starting up again when the power comes back on.” I couldn’t agree more. We have entered the hot, more summery season, here in India. I guess true summer does not arrive until May, but it is more than warm already this March. As the heat comes, we inevitably loose power more often. With more air conditioners (and fans) running throughout the city, the power supply gets a little weary and worn. So, “The Powers that Be” shut off electricity in different parts of the city, at various times, to conserve energy. During one of our stays in India, we would loose power for an hour at the same time every morning. The predictability was kind of nice. During this stay, we just never know. It could be in the middle of a load of laundry, or in the middle of a shower, or while baking a cake. If you’re lucky, really, you’re just sitting there playing Fan enga? because the good news is that Reuben can find the fan with or without the power. But, like JP said, we all rejoice when the power comes back, and the fan creaks to life again.

No need for a fan here at this open air (to the sea) restaurant in Goa. Ahh... beats a fan any day.

A mouthful of a trip.

There is a day-trip that we often take guests on that we call the Belur Trip.  It is a three-stop journey, visiting the ancient soapstone carved temples at Belur and Halebidu, and the Jain temple and pilgrimage destination of Shravenabelagola.  So, you see, it would be a bit of a mouthful to call it anything other than the Belur Trip.  

I’ve been on this trip at least a complete handful of times, yet the picture-taking never gets old for me.  There are a myriad of details to get caught up in, especially at Belur and Halebidu.  Soapstone can be carved with such precision that a whole epic event can be captured in a mere corner of the temple.  It is nice to have JP as a tour guide because his brain is a vault for these minute sorts of details, and he finds immense pleasure in pointing out all the cool stuff that I have forgotten since my last visit.  He is a lovely guide, and I usually understand his accent better.

I'm always a sucker for an Elephant (or two)

I love this one because it shows some unfinished business on the part of the stone carvers.

Here, the god Shiva has triumphed over a demon that took the form of an elephant, and now he is dancing within the carcass. EPIC.

Shrevenabelagola is a steep hike up a mountainside.  At the top you can see both the sweeping coconut groves of the surrounding area, and the enormous idol of a Jain saint named Gomateshwara.  He is naked (as very ascetic Jains would not wear clothes because of their belief that the sky is their clothing) so, for the sake of your sensibilities, I won’t show a picture here.  I find this to be a very serene and pretty place to visit.

Attention to Detail on the pillar nearing the idol at Shrevenabelagola

Doorway in the temple wall.

My sister, Amy, and her husband, Kyle just spent two weeks with us at the end of February, and it was a delight to show them around some of our favorite haunts, including the Belur Trip.

good travel companions

Vitality

One label that doesn’t fit India is, “dull and boring.”  Life here is colorful and vibrant.   This was shot on a regular weekday morning at our market.  Life around you stimulates the senses in ways few other things in life do.   I do not want to stop to observe this vitality… I yearn to always be a part of it.

Strength

It is not uncommon to see a person carrying a heavy load on their head in India.  I’ve witnessed tall stacks of luggage, buckets of wet laundry,  wide baskets of ripe fruit, and precarious towers of bricks all piled on top of heads here.  This woman’s clay pot contains water, a most basic commodity.  I watched her make her way through the City Market in Bangalore, selling cups of cool water to other vendors.  There are always thirsty people.

Her back and neck are strong.  Her head, unwavering.  Here, she waits patiently, stable and still,  for a lady selling fruit to quench her thirst from the offered stainless steel tumbler.

Catching Up – A brief pictorial update

To clear up any confusion, this is JP writing.   Those of you who get this joke know why I had to clarify.

India is a sensory overload for many reasons.   It is hard to capture the essence of India because the moment you begin to describe what India is, India changes shape in your hands.  The smells that were so distinctly Indian, the sounds that were the familiar symphony of the Indian traffic, the sheer volume of people dancing around you on the sidewalks… they all change quicker than you can say “snake charmer.”

So having said that, there a few specific examples of things that I like to carry in my heart that resonates with MY India.   They are, for me, symbols of a layered and deep culture that I am very proud of.   Here are a couple of photos that we snapped on a recent visit to Bangalore City Market that might help draw a picture for you.

1.  Coconuts

Coconuts

Coconuts bring me great joy.   They are used in a variety of ways in India.   We use the branches and husks for fuel, the water for hydration, the flesh for cooking yummy foods, and the canopy for shade, but the real reason I love them so much is much simpler than that.  I love coconuts because coconuts represent the tropics for me.  I see a coconut tree and I know that I am in a warm place.  I know that short sleeves and flip flops are welcomed here.   I know that home is not too far away.

2.  Commentary

Spice Vendor

Spices and India seem to go hand in hand.   This gentleman is offering us some saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.   While this scene is quintessentially Indian, what I liked about this walk in the market were the comments being made as we walked by the various stalls.   Both Amy and Katy wear toe-rings.   While this is a fashion accessory in the United States, in most part of India, especially in the South, it denotes a married woman.    As we walked through the market place, I hung back from the group to catch the conversation happening at the stalls (mostly because I love eavesdropping).  One of my favorite exchanges happened by a flower stall where two shopkeepers who were setting up shop suddenly stopped to take in the “white-people” walking by.  One guy laughingly told the other guys, “They have our Indian clothes on!”   The other guy responded, “Wait!  Look!  They have toe rings on.  Suppose they married a tamil guy?!”  Loud laughs ensued.   I walked by at this very moment and said in Tamil, “One of them did!”  And I flashed him the biggest smile.   It was beautiful!

__________________________

And finally, I had to add this picture of my sister-in-law Amy.  Yes, she has henna on her hands which is VERY Indian but mostly because I simply like this photo.   🙂

Henna