On Prohibiting The Vernacular


What a country. Perennially occupied with debating what to eat, what to drink, what to ban, what to make compulsory. What a country. Ours.
- Anand Ranganathan

After a commonplace birth on 21st July 2000 at the Kozhikode Cooperative Hospital, I was whisked away to Chennai, where I lived for the next 12 years or so. I grew up learning only Tamil and English at School. I managed to pick up a modicum of rudimentary spoken Malayalam,but I was never able to properly learn the language. That was until we moved back to Kerala. Upon arrival, I was enrolled at a high-toned school in Kozhikode run by the CMI.

Looking back, the admission interview seemed like a red flag. Standing outside the principal's office was a young girl from the 6th grade, looking vaguely guilty and squirming in her shoes.

"Why are you here?” I asked.
"For speaking Malayalam in class.”

We smiled and moved on. It was only later that I found that Malayalam was prohibited except during the Malayalam class, which was hardly three quarters of an hour long. No Malayalam in the corridor, no Malayalam in class, not even in the school courtyard. If caught, though this is rare, a fine is levied.

The rule isn't always enforced, of course. Monitoring 1200 students is a singularly difficult task for a school principal, even a competent one. Yet, even the existence of such a rule prohibiting students from speaking the language of their ancestors is banal. It restricts communication.

Even more unsettling was reading the 10th standard Malayalam textbook which contains a translated section from Kenyan Writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's excellent Decolonising the Mind. In a chapter, he speaks about the British colonial practice of prohibiting the use of a Kenyan vernacular, Gikuyu, in convent schools and punishing students for speaking in the language most familiar to them. The idea was disgraceful then, coming from foreign colonialists.

It seems even more so now, coming from the head of an education institution in a quasi-liberal democracy. Of course, I am not accusing my former principal of neo-imperialism, but it must be said that these ideals still remain entrenched in our post-colonial minds. I am not rejecting Western Civilisation or the consolations of Philosophy, Literature, or Science. I am basing my arguments on them.

Considering Malayalam inferior(condescending and utterly incorrect in itself as many western writers would do well to aspire to Srinivasan's Satire or Basheer's immense resonance) is just stupid. Barring it from students is frankly disgusting.