Celebrating International Mother Language Day

United Nations says,

Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost.

At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.”

My mother language is Tamil and I never learnt it formally. I learnt Tamil at home – to speak, to read and to write. I read every magazine and book my parents were reading and of course Tamil Cinema had wonderful songs that was full of poetry.

Every year in January, during festivals and holidays, we listened to debates and poetry in Tamil and often went to see plays and movies in Tamil.

My first poem was in Tamil when I read a poem by Poet Suratha. Find out more about how Suratha inspired me here.

I continued to write in Tamil and one of the teachers, who was also our vice principal and was a scholar in Tamil helped me in the library outside school hours. I then wrote a puppet show about Economics in Tamil and wrote a long poem about India’s warrior poet Subramania Bharathi.

But we also learnt English right from kindergarten and slowly, by the time I left primary school I had started to think in English. I read both Tamil and English fiction relentlessly, but with more English than Tamil.

Then when I was in my first year at university I entered a state-wide competition on the state of education in our country and I wrote an article in Tamil for this. I was so worried because I had never written anything formal in Tamil and one of my friends, who knew her grammar and spellings, helped me edit it. I won the first prize in that competition. But sadly that was my last published work in Tamil.

Now I write in English and rarely write in my mother tongue and I agree with the statement from United Nations. Forgetting your language is much more than forgetting the language, we lose the culture, literature and even social norms, proverbs, adages and more.

In Nelson Mandela’s words,

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. 
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

As an aunt of mixed race nephews, I’m constantly thinking about how I could show them the beauty of their mother language. They listen to music, and hear us talk but they live here. And they don’t often get to explore the language the same way as we did growing up in India.

And it is possible to forget your mother tongue if you don’t use it. This article at Babbel explains the research behind it.

Here is a beautiful poem Jesus Never Understood My Grandmother’s Prayers by Mikeas Sánchez, who writes in the Zoque language.

My grandmother never learned Spanish

was afraid of forgetting her gods

was afraid of waking up in the morning

without the prodigals of her offspring in her memory

My grandmother believed that you could only

talk to the wind in Zoque

but she kneeled before the saints

and prayed with more fervor than anyone

Jesus never heard her

my grandmother’s tongue

smelled like rose apples

and her eyes lit up when she sang

with the brightness of a star

Saint Michael Archangel never heard her

my grandmother’s prayers were sometimes blasphemies

jukis’tyt she said and the pain stopped

patsoke she yelled and time paused beneath her bed

In that same bed she birthed her seven sons

—Translated from the Zoque by David Shook

Check out my bi-lingual books that help many children read both in English and their mother-tongue.

Are you a young person whose mother language is different from the one you speak most of the time? Go and find out more about your language. Learn about poetry, proverbs and stories from your mother language and find ways to listen to it being spoken. You won’t regret it.

Skyping at Silly o’clock

FF-JustBooks_Aug2015_2It all started with Just Books, Anna Nagar. I made friends with the fabulous folks from Just Books when I was in India couple of years ago and they kindly invited me to their book festival this year.

Of course travelling all this way to Chennai for an hour’s storytelling was as improbable as my pet fish becoming a rockstar on the moon. She doesn’t have much of a talent on the moon, no gravitas, you see.

So we decided I would Skype if Just Books could arrange the technical things – like a laptop, a TV connection and a microphone. Sounds simple, right?

It was relatively simple, I should think. I’m kidding. I was here just turning on the laptop where the Just Books team carried big TV sets into their library, laid cables, tested mikes, changed laptops until everything went BLIP_BLOP_BLOOOO and then back to working FF-JustBooks_Aug2015_5again.

We tested laptops, televisions, microphones, lighting and seating and we were ready to go. The thing is India is about 4.5 hours ahead of London – that means all my events happen at silly o’clock in the morning in London.

It’s just as well, that I’m a morning person – the one who could wake up at five, but couldn’t keep her eyes open after midnight.

News of this Skype session spread like a bad smell and I got invited via a good Facebook friend to visit Pathways School in Noida, near Delhi for their technology day. What better way to be inspired by technology than use it for fun. So I agreed. Again we tested the setup a day before at half-past six in the morning  and then today I met with the kids at half-past six my time again.

IMG_0591That’s a lot of early mornings, ready and bright to meet the world. Normally I get up really early but I couldn’t even let my invisible friend see me until noon – I walk around in my pjs, with no makeup, hair pinned up until hunger knocks on the inner stomach walls and remind me I have to feed the writing machine.

SenbeiClockOr if it is a day I have to go to a day job, my talking clock reminds me – IT IS LATE and I rush into work – hopefully remembering to take off my pjs and put on something more sensible and grown-up-ish looking.

Every time I do one of these sessions, I’m amazed how convenient this technology is. They can hear me, see me and listen to me tell stories. And then we always make up a story together and it is so much fun. farmerfalgudressupAnd I don’t even have to change out of my pj. Just change the top to something more respectable. I’m kidding. I do dress up before I meet impressionable young minds and show them authors are really grownup people. Most of the time I fail miserably.

Today I met second-graders from Pathways School and they were an eager bunch in spite of the session being very close to their lunch hour.

I started with some things about myself, some questions to them and suddenly a voice popped up – When are you going to tell the story?

To the point. Just like me when I was his age. I am still told I come way too quickly to the point and I need to beat around the bush some more. The little person was right. So I told them the story from this book. gola_web

11988727_867511133331373_7090665875316021014_nI was almost done, we had question time and the first question was – How do you write a story? How do you answer that?

I can say I get ideas, I think about them,

I doodle, I dawdle,

I procrastinate, I fabricate, hyperventilate.

Then I get aggravated, agitated and put it away.

But the story is obstinate, I can’t eradicate it.

I’m fascinated and then I sit down and write.

And it goes on and on and on.

 But that is not something I could tell a 7-year old who thinks somehow this process is magical filled with dancing puppies, unicorns in silk robes and Korean pop music in the background. So I decided to show him how it’s done. And we made up a story together.

I gently gave them a structure and they filled in the blanks with enormous doses of creativity – a dragon that wants to eat a – stand back and be surprised and be warned – a baby.

And then I asked what super-power does the baby have – pat came the answer – crying of course and at that point, ladies and gents, the story was born. The rest as we say was as simple as dragon’s dinner. Want to read the story? You can find it here.

I have to mention the absolutely wonderful teachers who arranged everything without a hitch. They were on time, they encouraged the children to participate and will be doing some of my book related activities in their classroom too. A big thank you to them for making this happen.


In spite of the early starts, that makes me wonder if I’m really a robot with a self-destruct button, I’m enjoying the time I spend with these young people. Especially when I meet with kids in India who are mostly told academics is the first thing, everything else comes later – a spark of a story can set fire to the Delhi downpours (thanks Adele, for a brilliant line, which I have borrowed and changed).

selfdestructSo, to prove that I do have a self-destruct button, I have two more Skype sessions with India. The first one on the 19th (this coming Saturday), is with HippoCampus, Chennai. It’s free to attend and my books will be on sale to buy too. We will be creating a new story for Farmer Falgu.

And then I’m meeting with 9 parents and their kids via Google Hangout on Sunday and that’s a brand new experiment in the world of social media meets author who loves silly o’clock sessions. Let’s see how that goes. More sessions are on the cards – you can register your interest here.

That’s my super-late (for an early riser like me) report of today’s amazing session with Pathways school. The good news is I can sleep in tomorrow until 7 am. Blisssszzzzzzzzzzzz.


World Book Day event at HippoCampus Chennai with Tulika Books

I celebrated World Book Day event with Hippo Campus, Chennai and Tulika Publishers. A hoard of kids were ready to listen to stories, sing with me and absolutely ready to spring with answers to any questions I had for them.

I read from Balu’s Basket and Where is Gola’s Home? and we had a great time singing all sorts of things and drawing everything from house to basket to an eagle when we finished reading and listening to the stories.

I met a lot of young people growing up in Chennai today as I grew up here many decades ago. I got to meet some of my friends and family with their little ones.


My mum and Dad came with me too, proudly commenting on which parts of the session elicited more response and how smart today’s kids are.