Mother Tongue​

Anitha Devi Pillai

I speak three languages

read in two and write in one.
The third –

the one I can’t read or write

I quietly cuddle and

hold her close.

She’s my mother.

Her name is Malayalam.

She resides in my home

with my kith and kin.
She only speaks behind closed doors

and I don’t always understand her.

Yet I look out for her in public spaces - 
smiling at strangers

when I hear that they know her.

When I turned six

Tamil breezed into my life.

She said she was my Amma.

They said I belonged to her.  
She was truly easy to love

and was always there –

in signboards and forms

sitting side by side three others.

Amma still whispers sweet nothings

into my ears in my dreams.


Then there was English - 
the language of my thoughts.

She was strict and unpredictable

but the one I wanted to please the most. 
She coldly rules my head with an iron fist.
Yet I am lost without her.

It was, after all, she
who cradled me in her arms

and held my hand patiently

for several months
when I first learnt to write.

First published in Asiatic: IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature in 2020

https://journals.iium.edu.my/asiatic/index.php/ajell/article/view/1689

Reading 'Mother Tongue'​