Namaste. That was how my professor greeted me, in his attempt to acknowledge my Indian heritage. I stammered to find my words – the last time I said Namaste was to my yoga instructor at the end of classes.
I grew up in Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Colonised by the French, we greeted each other by kissing on both sides of the cheek, ate French pastries and listened to French songs. We were then also colonised by the British, and hence drove on the left side of the road and our law and education systems were largely British. The official language in parliament was English (having been the last to colonise the island), but the languages most commonly spoken were French (on a more formal note) and Mauritian Creole (a dialect derived from French). Hence, our textbooks at school were in English, our teacher would address us mainly in French, and we students would speak Creole amongst ourselves.
Few of us were of French or British descent on the island. Mostly, the colonies brought our ancestors from India, China or Africa. The Indians who came to Mauritius were mainly from the North of India, with a minority from the South (Tamil Nadu or Andra Pradesh). My father’s ancestry – five generations back – was from Andra Pradesh where the main language spoken was Telegu. Other than being able to count to ten (or maybe to three) in Telegu, he was only fluent in Creole, French and English, like most other Mauritians.
My father and his siblings lost their parents when he was young and were raised by their mother’s sister. To my first cousins and me, this was our grand-mother as far we were concerned. We called her “Babam”, which meant grandmother in Telegu and would also greet her in Telegu -“Namashkaram”. And that was the extent of our mastery in the language. Babam, now well over eighty, still ran her shop – the Appadu store on Appadu lane. She hadn’t been to school and therefore spoke no English or French, but rather Creole and also some Bhojpuri, the dialect that was spoken by the majority of North Indians on the island, especially useful for her in her trade.
My mother was born in Assam in India and met my dad while he was pursuing his tertiary studies in India. Assamese was the language that was commonly spoken in her family, mixed with English (all of her siblings having attended British schools). My father had learnt a few words of Assamese when he was trying to impress her and her family back in the day, but mostly they communicated in English. My grandfather having passed away before I was born, I only had the opportunity to meet my grandmother, who we called Aita (grandmother in Assamese). Aita spoke broken English and mainly Assamese. Like most of my family in India, she looked Southeast Asian, due to the proximity of Assam to Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal.
My siblings and I did not speak a word of Assamese – our knowledge of the language was limited to a song that my mother taught us. With our parents, we spoke English – a stark contrast to our friends and cousins in Mauritius, who spoke Creole or French with their parents at home. Amongst ourselves, we spoke English, Creole or French. I am embarrassed to say that I actually do not know how to greet someone in Assamese.
But all of this is not complicated enough. In Mauritius, we are taught English and French as mandatory subjects. We were also offered ‘Oriental’ classes – where we had the option to learn Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Arabic, Mandarin or … Catholic studies (it had been assumed that those whose heritage is none of the languages offered would opt to rather learn Catholic studies). My mom decided that my siblings and I should learn Hindi, because it was most practical, being most widely spoken than any of the other languages taught.
And so I found myself sitting in class in South Africa, trying to formulate a greeting that would have been most appropriate to my heritage. Outside of Mauritius, I claimed to be as Mauritian as one would be. In Mauritius, I identified with Telegu Mauritians. Within Telegu Mauritians (and on my dad’s side of the family), I was only half authentic, being half Assamese. With my Assamese family on my mother’s side, I was back to being Mauritian.