An Elegy for my Mother’s Tongue

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

— Matthew 5:4

“I was resentful that I didn’t know this is what “peaceful” looks like – /that no one had told me that dying is the longest verb –”

— Alok Vaid Menon, “Dying is the Longest Verb I Know”

My grandfather returned to me seven years after his death. Our last interaction was at his funeral; he lay still in his casket under a blanket of wreaths waiting for his new life — the life after life — to begin. This was not my only interaction with him, but it is the only one that marks my memory of him and occasionally even comforts me in times of loneliness.

*

Loneliness, like death, is confrontational. Loneliness, unlike death, is transient.

My language of loneliness is punctuated by fragments of memory, a past tussling the present.

*

My brother and I landed in Kerala, in the prickling September heat, without any knowledge of our final destination. Kerala is synonymous with our maternal home, our mother’s tharavadu. Returning to Kerala is always a homecoming. Our final destination has always been the pink house nestled in the winding hills of Thuruthicad, so far away from the bustling metropolises of Kochi or Trivandrum it’s farther away from one’s imagination. Our house is the only remnant of history that has survived the disastrous monsoon floods, the Gulf migration wave of the 90s, and the intercontinental extension of our nuclear family. Our final destination, our maternal home, is the locus of history, memories are constantly made and recorded within its boundary walls. There is no place for loneliness here.

*

I cannot claim to have a profound closeness to my grandfather; I have only learned about his life in his absence. Before he became my grandfather, V. T. Varghese was a station master in the Southern Railways. He had travelled across the Malabar coast and had familiarized himself with the network of railroads in India. He eventually retired in Thuruthicad, a village even without a bus stop.

Language, rather its absence, was at the root of our relationship. I had learnt Malayalam, his mother tongue, as a toddler and I had conveniently erased it from my life while navigating the dusty streets of New Delhi. Hindi, English, Hinglish was the lingua franca of India’s capital and I adapted to the demands of the city to finally inhabit it as a citizen, not a migrant.

*

The pink house was shrouded in white upon our arrival; it was the house of mourning. A huge portrait of my grandfather, in a cheap golden frame, hung outside the gate. A shamiana was pitched in the courtyard, where familiar faces were passionately hugging each other, holding hands, and wiping tears off each other’s faces. Everyone was dressed in white and performing a unique service to the dead.

I walked into the mourning house with my brother wearing a multi-coloured tank top with blue capris. We were too young to understand endings, so we were not informed about the death or the dress code. Our aunts and uncles recognized our lost city-bred faces in the pool of white linen and pointed towards our mother, who was sitting in the kitchen with other women boiling chai for the constant inflow of guests in the house.

*

My mother’s tongue was my mothertongue before I lived in other languages.

I am at home in the pink house. But, it always exists at a distance — far from the metropolis, farther away in my imagination.

I am alien to its geography of grief.

*

I remember my grandfather’s funeral as a long chant that began at the mortuary in the morning and ended at sunset in the cemetery. He was buried according to Syrian Christian rituals; his final moments marked a cessation — the termination of his earthly life. The prayers at the mortuary were led by nursing students, most of whom were my aunt’s colleagues. Not many of them knew my grandfather personally, but they had assisted him as a patient or monitored him during their observation hours at the hospital.

Chanting is an essential component of the Syrian Christian Orthodox church of Kerala. The Syriac (Aramaic) liturgy originated in the Middle East and made its way to Kerala in the 5 th century. The chanting practices were sustained by the close ties between the Persian Church in Seleucia-Ctesiphon and the descendants of the Hindu converts and immigrant Christians in India. Over the years, the church fragmented into the Syro-Malabar Church (in union with Rome), the Church of the East that followed the Chaldean liturgy, and the Syrian Orthodox Church that adopted the Antiochene liturgy. The churches vernacularized their liturgies to Malayalam since the 1960s to preserve their individual identities. The melodies of celebrated Syriac poets like St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373) and Jacob of Serugh (d. 521) gained a new life in a different language.

My grandfather’s body was moved to our living room for distant relatives and friends to catch a last glimpse. The private goodbye now became a public assembly of grief. Malayalam hymns like Samayamaam Radhattil (On the Chariot of Time) and Dukathine panapthrum karthavente kayil tannal (Receiving the Cup of Sorrows) were repeatedly sung to liberate the soul from the clutches of the body. The next stop was the church where select portions from the Gospel of John and the book of Ecclesiastes were read. I could not follow the readings in Malayalam, but I had memorized the Greek response, Kyrie Eleison,Lord have mercy.

Before the coffin was lowered into the grave, the body was sprinkled with sand while the priests read Genesis 3: 19, “ for dust you are, and to dust you will return”. My grandmother kissed him a final goodbye and watched her husband return to the remains of his ancestors’ land.

*

“We don’t forget,/ but something vacant settles in us,” wrote Roland Barthes on January 30, 1979 in the Mourning Diary he maintained after the death of his mother, Henrietta Barthes, in 1977. Barthes refers to mourning as a kind of voluntary suffering borne by the mourner on behalf of the bereaved. Besides acknowledging absence, mourning resurrects the possibilities of living a life without love, a vacant life without the intimacy of touch or smell — the fear of loneliness. Loneliness realizes itself through language, it pushes the self in a corner of its existence until one becomes aware of their entire being. The magnitude and minuteness of their life.

Language is a social currency. Language is a private commodity.

*

I was too young to deliver an eulogy for my grandfather. I did not speak Malayalam, neither did I have the words to accurately convey the loneliness that had tugged at my heart in his absence. No, I could not comprehend death — it’s infinitude or momentum. But I inhabited its space by navigating his public funeral like a stranger. I was still searching for a language of lament, a language that could dignify my private grief publicly.

*

My grandmother suffered with her husband. In his last days, she bathed and fed him to only witness him disappear from her life. His death transformed her; her life became a constant reminder of his absence. She inherited a vacant life and became the only inhabitant of the pink house, our refuge of memory.

Over the years, sickness has overshadowed the landscape of the pink house. There are small medicine bottles on the shelves and pill boxes on the bedsides. Most of the antique teak furniture of the house is replaced by cushioned sofas specially designed for seniors.

My grandmother chose to live a minimalist life after her husband’s death. She wanted to subsume his absence in the ordinary, until every corner of the house only served as a reminder of what it once was in the presence of his company. In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes: “Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”

Pain resides in the body, but grief resides everywhere.

*

Lament is the grammar of grief. It’s a testament of solidarity, a symbol of vulnerability. To exist in a language is to embrace the sociality of pain. I only began existing in Malayalam when I overcame my loneliness and became confounded by the grief of others. The inheritance of loss in my family moves through the language of lament. It inhibits the erasure of memories because it is constantly weaving the past into the ordinary, the everyday.

*

I struggle with syntax; I only learnt to construct a grammatically correct statement in university. I cannot punctuate silences and my sentences stretch across too many lines. I have never inherited a language in its fullness, I have always acquired it in more than two halves. It is only through lament that I have allowed my languages — Malayalam, Hindi/Urdu, English, and Marathi— to coexist within me.

I did not speak Malayalam during my grandfather’s lifetime. I have still not perfected the grammar, syntax, or vocabulary of this language. But I have embraced this language’s capacity to hold my lamentations and carry me through the stages of grief.

*

To exist in a language is to inherit its loss.

I have not forgotten Malayalam. I have recovered it as an artifact of pain, a language of loss.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, Nathalie Léger, and Richard Howard. The Mourning Diary.London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011. Print.

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking.New York: Vintage International, 2007. Print.


“An Elegy for my Mother’s Tongue” is a reflection of loss, belonging, and lamentation through the lens of language. It searches the grammar of lamentations within languages in narrative prose and questions the inheritance of languages as historical artifacts.

Soumya Rachel Shailendra is a student of literature and politics at Bennington College. Her scholarly interests are centered around translation studies, resistance literature, and migration studies. She has previously collaborated with the National School of Drama, New Delhi. She is currently translating Dharamavir Bharati’s verse play, Andha Yug (1962) in English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

css.php