Thursday, June 13, 2024

Navigating multicultural identities: Stories of cultural clash and politics of belonging

What thoughts come to your mind when you meet an English speaker? Is it the same when you meet an Urdu or Hindi Speaker? Language is inextricably linked with identity and culture. The literature developed in certain languages expresses their culture and native identity. Furthermore, my identity reflects my interactions with others. My self is created by people’s approach towards me when I communicate with them in a certain language or dialect.  

As a Malayalam speaker, I am proud of my identity particularly when I travel outside of the state. However, When I was in Dungarpur, Rajasthan, for the field practice of my master’s in education, my language and religious identity were questioned. The purpose of the visit was to understand the Government Schools in Rajasthan and how the various educational functionaries work and influence the school system.  One Saturday night, at 10, I was walking with two peers through the street where the government officials and the educated elite class of Dungarpur lived. I was speaking to my friends in broken Hindi (joining vocabularies from different languages and starting and ending with Hindi). Then, one gentleman (later, I found that he was an advocate) obstructed us and asked for our details. He raised his voice asking (where are you coming from? Why are you here? All the residents nearby gathered as if a thief had been caught.

My colleagues were comfortable in Hindi, they answered his questions explaining the purpose and apologizing to not make the situation worse. Listening to my answer ‘I am from Kerala’, the situation changed; he quarrelled: I Know you Malayalam-speaking idiots, I have watched ‘Kerala Story’, what are you doing here? I know your intention’. Then he identified my name from Aadhar, as Muhammed Salihu (a Muslim name) and accused me of intruding on his house. It was fabricated because of my language and identity. He called many natives and police who were supporting him. It was our university officials who saved us from this treacherous dilemma using his contacts with higher government authorities.

The gentleman and natives toiled to drag the Organization’s staff to his side by asking ‘Aren’t you from Gorakhpur, don’t you understand that he is from Kerala, and he is a Muslim’.

In the above experience, I was accused because I was a foreigner by language. It exhorted them to make other language speakers criminals. It exposes how literature such as ‘The Kerala Story’ paints narratives in society and influences people. It is amply clear that we are living in a post-truth era, where the hate speeches and bullshits of political speakers are considered reality after continuous reinforcement and utterance. In ‘Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window’ by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, a Korean girl abuses Toto Chan by calling her ‘Korean Girl’ (Kuroyanagi, 2012). She doesn’t know Japanese, but she speaks Korean. Because, if she makes a mistake everyone scolds her by calling her ‘Korean girl’, therefore she understands it as an abusive word. 

I was born in Karinkallathani, where two districts of Kerala namely Palakkad and Malappuram meet its borders. I use a distinct Malayalam dialect made of two different language varieties from two districts. I was brought up in a monolingual Molla family where even the extended family members also speak in a similar Malayalam dialect except those who are employed in government services or upgraded their social class. These dialectical differences are deeply connected to social class, they often tend to adopt the features of standardized dialect (Mesthrie et al., 2009). In my childhood, I was not aware of my language but noticed unique dialect variations as some elite family members started to speak a different variety of Malayalam (sociolect).  

My education was in a boarding school in Ponnani, 50 km away from home. Ponnani is a coastal area in Malappuram district, where the native people speak in a distinct dialect and unique tone. There, I was the only student who spoke a different dialect paving the way for continuous mocking and relentless criticism. There, I was humiliated and teased by my classmates, and even by my teachers. I felt an inferiority complex and shame in using my slang, and it taped my mouth with the fear of disgrace. Gradually, I was compelled to accommodate a new dialect and intentionally reject my identity. However, when I get holidays and come back to my hometown, I struggle to switch between the dialects.

Furthermore, in the Malayalam workbook, I used to write poems and essays in my language variety, but I was punished for not accepting standardized language varieties. Then, I was compelled to reject my dialect which was tightly coupled with my identity, and to use the language used in the capital city. It is amply clear that the distinction between language and dialect is power and wealth (Agnihotri, n.d.).3 

Mastery in four languages (Malayalam, English, Urdu, and Arabic) was one of the main goals of the school. To pass the Senior Secondary examination, each student must master a specific language and be able to communicate in the other three languages. However, my language expertise changed from one language to another. In the early years, I was an expert in Arabic. my family and religious background influenced me to learn Arabic as Satish Deshpande talks about in ‘The Story of My English’, ‘I didn’t inherit my English, but I inherited the condition that allowed me to acquire it’ (Deshpande, 2019). Then, the poems of Mirza Galib and Faiz Ahmad Faiz propelled my enthusiasm for Urdu. Then to Malayalam and English respectively. It was not only the change in my expertise in a particular language but my identity, culture, behaviour, and interests were going through significant transformations. 

As Kumud Pawde states ‘he listened to prayers in Sanskrit’ (Pawde, n.d.). Sanskrit was associated with religious people like the priests. Likewise, when I was interested in Arabic I was highly engaged in religious texts, and religiously motivated dialogues. The Urdu language enhanced my interest in political speeches, Gazal, and Qawwali. I started to wear Jubba and Pajamas and a turban with a long tail. Malayalam books by Vaikam Muhammed Basheer ignited my interest in reading Malayalam literature. 

In the last year of schooling, I was exposed to the realm of English language and literature thanks to one of my mentor’s guidance in public speaking and essay writing in English. Afterwards, my interest grew in literature and academics, which transformed my thinking and attracted me to the English lifestyle.  

By passing senior secondary school, I was fluent in four languages. Moreover, there was another language that I acquired during this period. While I was on vacation, I used to work in my father’s shop. As a shopkeeper in Kerala where the migrant labourers from Northern states are spread all over, it was necessary to communicate with them in Hindi. I used to code-switch between Hindi and Urdu to communicate with them, this exposure strengthened my confidence in Hindi speaking. By this time, I was recognized as multilingual. I started to translate the texts from one language to another. However, I was confused about what constitutes knowing a language. I often considered myself a multilingual person with five languages, but I was not confident in writing and reading Hindi. Yet, I know how to speak and understand.  

When I started my career at Azim Premji University, my mother tongue was restricted to telephone conversations with family and friendly talk with Malayalees. I was not fluent in English and Hindi, which were spoken by the students. Thus, I started code-switching between Hindi, Urdu, and English due to my lack of confidence in any language. However, it was quite interesting to see some faculties who translanguage in the classroom, to ensure the participation of students from diverse linguistics backgrounds, in constructive knowledge production. Moreover, some students continuously switch between Hindi and English due to their confidence and fluency in both languages.  

I learned English by reading the textbook and memorization of vocabulary provided by the curriculum, where the listening part was thoroughly ignored. Hence, I struggled to engage with university students in casual conversation, often, I was mistaken in pronouncing even common vocabularies. Nevertheless, I feel connectedness and happiness whenever I hear Malayalam words or communication.

Standardization of language is a necessary evil. The speakers of non-standardized language are often forced to leave behind their language and identity while entering a formal place. Moreover, living in a monolingual society, the transition to a multilingual platform is very difficult. The receptive multilingualism helps the speakers to understand the communication of similar languages (like the Malayalam and Tamil speakers).  However, individual multilingualism is advantageous for gaining knowledge in different languages and communicating with people from different linguistic backgrounds (Demurt, 2011). In the contemporary Indian context, it is a perilous challenge that people are discriminated against based on language, the language divide becomes a politics to harvest votes.

Muhammed Salihu is a post-graduate student of Education at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.


  • Agnihotri, R. K. (n.d.). Kaun Bhasha Kaun Boli. Sandarbh, 3(13). 
  • Demurt, A. (2011). Multilingualism. In R. Mesthrie (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Sociolinguistics (pp. 261-282.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Deshpande, S. (2019). The Story of My English. The India Forum. 
  • Kuroyanagi, T. (2012). Totto Chan: The little girl at the window. Kodansha America. 
  • Mesthrie, R., Swann, J., Deumert, A., & Leap, W. L. (2009). Introducing sociolinguistics: second edition (2nd ed.). John Benjamins Publishing. 
  • Pawde, K. (n.d.). The Story of My Sanskrit. In A. Dangle (Ed.), Poisoned Bread Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Orient Longman. 

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