Soon after our daughter is born, we move to Oakland for six months. I am between academic jobs (finishing at Northwestern, not yet starting at UIC), and Kevin is on sabbatical, doing research at MSRI in Berkeley. I am not sure what I will want out of motherhood — will I want to stay home, to spend all my time with her? It turns out no. Kavya is a poor sleeper, waking every three hours for the first nine months, and even though Kevin and I split six-hour sleep shifts (I sleep from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., while he watches her and gives her bottles if needed; he goes to sleep himself at 3 a.m.), month after month of short and interrupted sleep leaves us both exhausted, often angry, trying not to take it out on each other, trying to remember that we do still love each other. By the fall, I am desperate to get out of the tiny apartment we have rented, and Berkeley is one of the few places in the country that offers Tamil classes, so we find a friend to babysit, and I go.
I am eager, a sharp contrast to the Tamil classes my parents tried to make me take as a child. I had protested then — after four years of Polish in elementary school, I was trying to learn Spanish in high school, and it felt like too much — the words jumbled in my head. In Tamil class, held at a far away community center one Saturday a month, I answered ‘si’ for yes, and the class laughed. After a year of this, my tearful protests earned me an exemption, and I didn’t have to take the classes anymore. Now, I regret it — it was hard, but it’s much harder to learn as an adult. And I want this language back — my parents say I was fluent, when I came at age two-and-a-half. They had wanted me to learn English, of course, to succeed in this new land. They had never thought that I might lose my Tamil.
The classes are difficult — the teacher is Indian, and Indian Tamil is sufficiently different, after two thousand years of divergence, of linguistic drift, that my own mangled memories of Sri Lankan Tamil are little help. Even counting to ten sounds different. But I persevere, do the lessons week after week. Kevin had talked about learning with me, but he is too busy to take the classes too; instead, we go over my homework together, and he practices on me, on the baby, on the dog.
Nai means dog, and he takes to calling Ellie ‘puppy-nai’. Dog-dog, which makes no sense, but I am charmed nonetheless. Chinna puppy-nai — little dog-dog. Periya puppy-nai — BIG dog-dog. Chinna mahal — little daughter. Eventually we graduate to longer sentences, that, if I blur my ears a bit, sound almost like the sounds of my childhood. Conjem thanir condevango? Can you bring me a little water? Everything in Tamil is softened — it has to be a ‘little’ water you ask for. Extra layers of politeness, of respect. Big sister is always acca, big brother is always anna. Later, when we have a son, we will try to teach him to call his big sister Kavi Acca, and for a few years, it seems to stick. Eventually, it fades away.
After the semester of classes, we take the baby and go to my parents’ for Christmas. We try, so proudly, to speak Tamil to them, but they can only laugh — our accents are too Indian. They can’t understand anything we’re saying. We buy Sri Lankan Tamil lessons on tape, and promise ourselves that we will try again, later, when we are not so impossibly tired. A decade later, Kevin still calls Ellie ‘puppy-nai’ sometimes, absent-mindedly, and each time, my heart squeezes tight.