When I go back home, it takes some time for me to find my voice.
(I think I lost it
in between baggage claims,
in the lines between elocution
class and empire)
Sometimes my words come out accented; I sound less Sinhalese every time I go back. My cousins, all younger than me, laugh loudly every time I mess up. “Aiyo!” They cry. “What do you learn at your fancy schmancy university if you can’t even say this properly?” Their innocence sounds a little like naiveté. I want to tell them that in my now-world, there is a table, and at that table there’s cake and jobs and college degrees and a life so different to the one I knew twisting papaya stems by my father’s house, but to get a seat at the table, I need to sound less like them and more like the white men we see when we switch on our TV screens. I want to tell them that in my now-world of resumes and lecture theatres, the whiter I sound, the better I am heard. I want to tell them that I have made myself a home out of expectations and escape an ocean away, and in this home, there is no space for monsoon tears, or Sinhala, or them. There is only English and the overwhelming weight of some nebulous notion of success that I am afraid has me playing the rules of a game that goes far beyond me.
My mouth makes a home out of English
(and privilege and pastiche)
but my tongue trips at the doorway
caught in the threshold between home and not-quite;
clings to the curvature of truth,
of homeland, of origin—
the liminality of where I am
and where I started from.
කට බොරු කියතත් දිව බොරු කියන්නෙ නැහැ
(The tongue does not lie
though the mouth may try.)
I want to tell them all this, but of course, I do not have the words to do so in Sinhala. I want to tell them that sometimes, my tongue betrays me, switching up my ws and my vs in English. There is a saying in Sinhala that goes “the tongue does not lie, though the mouth may”. My mouth lies, hiding behind words in a language that was never mine to begin with, but my tongue trips, unwilling to relinquish the curvature of Sinhala, of homeland, of origins. My tongue clings with the obstinance of the faithful to the language I ran away from, a searing, nagging reminder that there is as much colour in my once-upon-a-time of monsoon tears and too sweet tea on sunny verandah as there is in my now-world of resumes and lecture theatres, and English and privilege. I may have turned towards English, but despite my best efforts, my tongue catches me, reminds me where I have come from, where I must return to.
My parents have both always apologised for what they call their “broken English”. They speak two languages fluently: the thunderous timbre of Tamil and the cascading cadences of Sinhala roll off their tongues like water, but English scalds them, each word bubbling out of their throats like a secret they are not privy to. I want to tell them — Amma, Thaththa — your English is not broken. There is power in the alchemy of your words, the way that three tongues support each other, one swooping in to fill the silence left by another. Sometimes, we are faced with the impossibility of a word that has no English approximation, like කහට, the bitterness of tea when the leaves are left too long to steep, or සැර, stern and spicy both at once, depending on how it is used. Perhaps these words are too intrinsically tied to culture, to growing up barefoot in muddy paddy fields in white-walled houses that weep in the monsoons, that they cannot be captured by English.
And perhaps that is okay.
English alone is not enough to capture the scent of tea sipped in silence on sunny verandah, or the fire and the spice of බුලත් as betel leaves mark my tongue red and do not leave, even after I have washed it away. Perhaps in growing up bilingual, in the constant state of switching between tongues, in the trip of my tongue in the liminality between Sinhala and English, there is the possibility of a (re)turn to two worlds, two tongues, both a part of me, neither one that I am willing to give up.