In her book on growing up in Iran Things I’ve been silent about Azar Nafisi talks about the times when she had trouble learning English. Her mother—who had not known a word of the language either—studied the assigned pages of the English text in order to test her and helped her memorize long lists of words every night.
In new strange lands the stories of our lives are all so similar. When I was growing up in Dubai my Mom was as committed to teaching me Arabic as I was adamant that I wouldn’t pay attention in class.
Mom would take my Arabic Text Book to her Yemeni friend, Feriyal, to write out the pronunciation and the meaning of every sentence in the textbook in English. She refused to pack me off to tuition classes and every evening we would sit at my desk and start at the beginning, 'Alif Baa Taa Saa Jeem…’
In Bangalore, Kannada is my only way to understand a people whose lives I’d not ordinarily be privy to and the only to allow myself a glimpse into everyday life: Whether it’s to understand why my domestic help is always falling ill or to understand from a rickshaw driver if a Prepaid Auto Stand works to his benefit or not or even laugh when Dee explains away a dress she doesn’t like 'Addu onetaraa!’. It’s what also bridges the gap between a rickshaw driver who tries to brusquely brush off a 'Northinda’ customer and the same driver who grins wide and says “Helli madam, yelli hog beku? Nimmge Kannada barudilvaa, yaake Hindialli maathadthira?"
I read Kannada now, like my Mom read Arabic. I read each letter and then string it all together to make a word: slowly, curve after curve. I catch my breath as I stumble into beauty, meaning, serendipity word-after-word. It’s the only way to make sense of the world around me.