Monique Nair is a Melbourne/Naarm based writer of Indian-Italian-Polish heritage. She is a screenwriter for My Melbourne, an upcoming anthology film produced by Mind Blowing Films and supported by VicScreen and Screen Australia. She is the co-editor of Mascara Literary Review’s debut anthology, Resilience (2022), published with Ultimo Press. She is an alumni of the West Writers program with Footscray Community Arts and her writing has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks, Peril
Photograph: Gianna Rizzo
To the Languages
To the languages that died crossing the sea and I never inherited: Malayalam, Hindi, a northern Italian dialect and Polish. I miss you. I long for you. I mourn your loss – as if languages can get lost and die in the gap between parent and child. But in reality, you were never really mine.
Were you? It’s not like I ever fluently held you on my tongue or you were intentionally passed down like a family heirloom or a birthright. But you always felt so near – a familiarity unparalleled to other foreign languages.
So then perhaps you didn’t really die crossing the sea; you survived the journey, the aftermath, but not the endurance to the next generation. As if the seas made you sterile – unable to breed yourself into existence for the next generations to come.
I was born into a colonial English-speaking country, on unceded land holding so many languages itself, some faded, some on the edges of survival, some revitalizing, some thriving. Born to an English-speaking mother, who sometimes speaks English in a kind of Italian rhythm but carries the death of Italian and Polish forever at the tip of her tongue from migrant parents who spoke to each other in their languages but only English to their children. And to my father whose tongue twists in multiple Indian languages but speaks a polished brand of colonial English – a result of his English medium Mumbai schooling: a remnant of colonial days and the illusion of Western supremacy.
So, it was only English he passed on. Unrealised mother tongues faded to ‘unnecessary’ and too hard to teach and maintain amongst pervasive English and without community.
But, I love English too – it’s the only language I truly inhabit and express through, yet it doesn’t always feel like enough.
When we are born, we have all the languages in the world. Our ears have the capacity to distinguish every sound in every human language, but depending on our surroundings our range reduces and we are conditioned not to notice the subtle differences between consonants that don’t exist in English but are integral in Hindi. In that way, not feeding children a language takes away from their born ability.
But I can’t resent my parents, my grandparents – there are forces beyond them, validity to their choices, and I always have my own agency to learn a language myself.
I was still offered languages – washed over by Hindi in a childhood dancing and singing to Bollywood songs, learned to say ‘hot water’ and ‘cold water’, count and muster greetings in Hindi and recite Sanskrit prayers. My tongue’s muscle memory will always find the Gayatri mantra, although I could never tell you what each word means unless I pull up a definition I found on a WhatsApp forward image.
As a teenager I cultivated an affinity for Italian to roll off my tongue in songs when I found Jazz and my grandfather’s Dean Martin records and CDs and tried to learn all the words to ‘Volare’ and ‘That’s Amore’. Jazz ebbs and flows in syncopated currents, sprawling and shifting between languages – English and Italian – and I was teeming with pride that many of the 1950s/60s jazz greats were Italian and I had one quarter belonging to that diaspora.
Or, perhaps no claim at all with only one to ten in Italian and a handful of greetings and nouns. My teenage bedroom singing: a hollow illusion in tumbling tongue rolls and wavy vowels.
(And, I’m not even sure I would recognise Polish if I heard it)
Yet still, there are Hindi songs I can recall – the instrumentals start and the forthcoming words emerge in the corners of my mind, intangible to my tongue, in inarticulate knowing. Sometimes my tongue can stumble through them, embodied memory, but unknown meaning. And at times I hear conversation and I understand words I forgot I knew but would be forever terrified to say aloud and mispronounce. It’s all disparate fragments that can never amount to the full existence of language – never fully carried on these rhythms, just transiently suspended in fleeting waves of sound.
To the languages that crossed the sea – perhaps you did survive, and you’re still here with me. Except, it’s a subdued existence on the peripheries.