Muted

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Illustration by Ally Matas.

When I was 5, I could speak 5 different languages.

A Gujarati mother, Marathi father, and South-Indian neighbours whom I grew up around, on top of Hindi and English being spoken at school, turned me into quite the little polyglot.

My parents used to have to bribe me to stop talking for even a minute, but it never worked. I could say every word I knew in so many different ways, and I had so much to say!

We moved when I was 8 years old. Suddenly, I was spending most of my days with people who only spoke English, and before I knew it, it was the only language I was fluent in.

I’ve forgotten how to speak the words I used to say all the time. When I visit my relatives, rapid, exciting conversation happens around me like TV dialogue. I feel as though I’m not really there – like I’m just watching television – and I’m unable to contribute. I react to the words I hear, but I can’t add to the conversation.

Sometimes I try to put a sentence together. Hindi works out because I can remember it from the movies I watch. Gujarati is easy because I see my mom’s side of the family more often than my dad’s. Usually, the sentence ends up being a mix of Hindi, Gujarati, and English. Marathi is the hardest to remember.

One winter, we stayed with my dad’s sister – she’s Rekha aatya, aunt Rekha, to me – in Aurangabad. On the flight there, my mother told me the story of how Rekha aatya was responsible for my parents being allowed to marry. When we landed, I wanted to hear about it from my aatya, but I didn’t know how to ask.

I sit in silence when I am alone with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. We used to have conversations that were fast-paced, witty, and hours long. Our talks are now reduced to yes-or-no questions that I respond to with pathetic nods and smiles.

Last year, we visited my South-Indian neighbours, the Pujaris, from back when we lived in India. They were like my second family – I spent entire days at their apartment while my parents worked. I love them to death, and yet, I can’t tell them that anymore. Pujari uncle can speak English, but about as well as I can speak Hindi, so my parents fill in the quiet gaps while we chat.

When we get up to leave, Pujari uncle walks us to the door. He gives me a hug that ends with him holding my chin in his wrinkled fingers and smiling sadly.

Nothing will make the tone of his trembling hands on my face any less bitter.

That wordless exchange will always be my least favourite conversation.

Written by Shailee Koranne. 

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