by Elaine Mead
Malayalam is a Dravidian language that is mainly spoken in the South Indian state of Kerala.
It’s the language that my partner’s Grandmother greets him with when we meet her. He has not seen her for more than a decade and has not spoken the language for just as long.
Despite this, he responds to her greeting in kind, in the language that’s buried in his DNA. I think he is the most surprised of all of us present that he is able to do so. I have never heard him speak this language and it pulls at something deep inside my chest.
His Grandmother turns to me and warmly takes both my hands in hers and speaks to me in her native tongue, following up with smooth English and a twinkle in her eye. She emphasises what a pleasure it is to meet me and I can feel how genuine the sentiment is. Her attention returns to her grandson, the years that have developed between them, and the man he has become.
We are in Bangalore, the capital city of the Southern Indian state Karnataka, for a family wedding. For my partner and I, the past week has been filled with introductions to immediate and distant family, old school friends and new acquaintances for both of us. I have spent the previous month leading up to the trip with a growing ball of anxiety knotted in my gut.
As it turns out, my anxiety was completely unwarranted.
From earlier conversations, I had some idea of the reverence my partner felt for family and community. Seeing that in its full capacity, how he interacts with his siblings and old friends, and how they completely enveloped me in that process was, I have to admit, a profound experience. The connections went beyond the personable, into century-old traditions, bringing everybody together with a focus on building stronger bonds across families and community groups. Unification.
I come from a large British family, and while I cannot say that the idea of family bonds is not important, it is often with a focus on independence from each other, rather than connecting as a unit. A little over two years ago I made the decision to move to Australia to be with my partner. The experience has certainly cracked open my own perceptions of family and the anchors we need in life to feel connected. Before our trip to India, this part of my life was a messy puzzle that sat incoherently in my subconscious. After experiencing how openly my partner’s wider community embraced me, I felt the pieces begin falling together.
Since moving I have felt unanchored. In my own family, there is a propensity to lean towards only connecting with each when it’s required - holidays and birthdays - or when something is needed from one another, for practical support in some life administrative way. As I now live in the opposite time zone and a full day’s journey away from my family, both of those foundations of connection have all but gone out the window. It’s resulted in me, not only becoming lazy about how I connect with them, but also unsure how to. The old ways of connecting no longer exist and in their place a void had slowly opened up.
It was during this trip that the feeling in my chest, that sense of being without an anchor, began to acquire a name. There was a context and foundation ultimately missing in my life. It stemmed from the lack of where my sense of self sat within something bigger than my individuality. It stemmed from a sense of belonging. A lack of embedded roots.
Our ideas for the self, how we want to show up in the world, how we connect and share those ideas are intimately linked to where we come from, for better or worse. As it turns out, where I had come from wasn’t helping me feel like I belonged. What existing in my partner’s foundation taught me, even briefly, was that our roots are not conditional, but they do require work.
On our return flight from Bangalore, a sense of sadness loomed over me. My partner queried my mood. I had to concede that I felt more welcomed and accepted in ten days with his community, with people he hadn’t even seen for years than I ever did since arriving in Australia, or on our return trips to London.
Change is always at the end of our fingertips. I now know how the dynamics with the people who encapsulate my roots impact me and what I would prefer them to look like.
That’s the connection I’m working towards.