21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life – sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
(This post was sent by Baljinder Kaur. Baljinder is an illustrator and storyteller who enjoys observing and connecting with seemingly ordinary details of life around her, through mixtures of media in series of sketchbooks and personal projects. Over the years she has developed a passion for children’s picturebooks, in particular as a platform for exploring and expressing ideas around South Asian Diaspora. She is interested in demystifying philosophies that seem to be trapped, lost or misunderstood over generations, due to the inevitable linguistic and cultural changes that come with migration. You can follow her work on her website, Instagram and Twitter.)
Some of my earliest memories with my mother tongue, Panjabi, are of embarrassment and frustration.
I was born in England, to immigrant parents. My Father came here as a young teen and my Mother a little later, when married. My Father therefore, had been exposed to western culture whilst his mind was still fairly impressionable, so he learnt to speak, read and write fluent English (with no Indian accent) as well as a general preference for ‘British’ living. My Mother however, came from an uneducated background. She was one of the eldest siblings and was made to help with farm labour, whilst her younger siblings were educated. Once arriving from Panjab, she was unfortunate to have been met with a suppressive in-law family, who also sought her for labour and was not offered the opportunities to learn English or pursue higher dreams.
I felt it necessary to mention the above, as it perhaps puts into perspective as to why I struggled with my identity growing up. I spoke in English with my father, and Panjabi with my mother, both teaching me different values, attitudes and philosophies (as well as languages).
As a child I remember feeling embarrassed and offensive speaking Panjabi amongst people of non-indian background, yet hypocritically being prideful of using the label ‘Jatt/Panjabi’. I was confused. My Mother would often pack me praute or roti for school lunch and I would be embarrassed to take them out of my bag (and so ate them in secret) as to not potentially offend anyone with the smells.
Mother soon noticed my sense of disconnection and so began taking me on many beautiful trips to India and in particular, to local youth classes that would translate and explain Gurbani (Sikh Scriptures) in English. I slowly yet suddenly fell in love. Everything finally began to make more sense.
|Illustration by Baljinder Kaur
I am still making sense of things, existentially, and often use painting and drawing as a means to do so. It is not so much my identity as a citizen or culture that I’m trying to understand, for those things are subjective and temporal. It is more so the ongoing attempt to realize my ultimate identity and truth, which my Mother taught me the words of when I first began to speak as a baby – the Moolmantar
(the first paragraph of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji – Divine Living Sikh Scripture).
The Guru describes an identity that is beyond any language/culture//race/gender/faith/species, the Oneness of this Soul, of all Souls and all existence. Gurbani is now what I consider my mother tongue. I may not speak or understand it yet, as fluently or often as I wish, but it is what brings me back to the sense of feeling at home, within myself.
(Thank you Mother, for taking me back to my real Mother!).