[Since the initial publication of this short story, I have received many messages asking whether it was autobiographical. While this story explores very real linguistic complexities, it remains a work of fiction]
One day, I wake up and my tongue is burning with the need to speak my mother tongue.
The word “burning”, here, is not a metaphor. My whole mouth feels like a volcano awakening after years of dormancy, and my tongue is already beginning to writhe under its first slivers of lava. The twisting, however, is not random: my tongue is struggling to spell out the well-worn patterns of the language I have grown up speaking, but haven’t tasted for longer than I can remember.
How long has it been?
My eyes widen at the realization, and despite the pain that is slowly encroaching upon my mental faculties, I force myself to go back in time and assess the veracity of that duration. Has it really been that long?
It can’t have. I would have noticed.
But, as it turns out, I didn’t notice, not until I just woke up feeling like my mouth was on fire.
You want to speak? Then speak and make it stop! I order myself in exasperation.
I open my mouth and twist it into the familiar pattern of korek, the word that is both a question and an answer, and undoubtedly the island’s most used adjective.
To my utter dismay, however, no sound escapes my mouth. I begin to try again, but clamp my lips shut immediately as the lava flow spreads across my jaw and up to my ears, until my entire face is cupped by a single flickering flame. My eardrums begin to vibrate, like sega drums heated up before a night of revelry.
You want to be listened to. You want a conversation.
Now, this will be something harder to achieve. It isn’t like I can just go walking down the corridors of my residence hall until I reach the door of the next Mauritian who lives there. Or like I can hop into an Uber and find the next Mauritian family in the city. Oh no.
This isn’t London or Paris or Melbourne or Toronto. This is Fergus Falls, Minnesota, USA. Literally the other side of the world from the country where I was born. There aren’t any Mauritians in the entire state, let alone driving distance. Truth be told, for all intents and purposes, Mauritius doesn’t even exist here.
The name itself, “Mauritius”, registers as nothing more than blank stares on peoples’ faces. At first the looks didn’t bother me, but by now I’ve received so many of them that sometimes, sitting here among the shoveled-up piles of snow and icy pavements, it’s hard to believe that Mauritius is a real place, not simply a make-believe world conjured out of my own imagination on the days when I most need a respite from coding assignments.
The coals in my mouth definitely feel real, though, and they’re heating up - so I need to figure this out. Fast.
OK. Let’s think rationally. If I can’t find a flesh-and-blood Mauritian, then I’ll just find someone online. That can’t be too hard. Who was the last person from home that I spoke to?
The answer is obvious: my parents. I’m very close to them, actually. There are times when we speak almost every day, and even during midterms and finals we still talk at least once a week. Having never been to college themselves, they don’t get most of what I’m going through, but they love listening to me talk about it, and their reactions always help me put things in perspective, even if that wasn’t their starting intention.
Why are you so upset that the immigration officer was rude to you? What’s going to happen in the worst case – you’ll be deported? Free ticket to Mauritius! Is that really the worse that could happen? You haven’t been back in three years, we could do all the things you used to like, but please don’t tell anyone that you’ve started eating beef…
But – and here’s the hitch – my parents and I, we don’t speak Creole to each other. We never have, not since that one day when our tongues changed forever.
“Mimi, why are you so quiet, mo zanfan?”
“She’s been quiet the whole way home.”
Indeed, the child had been uncharacteristically silent the whole afternoon, ever since her father picked her up from kindergarten and at noon and they had walked back together. That in itself was an anomaly – Mimi never wanted to walk back, insisting instead that the father push her home in the stroller that she had quite obviously overgrown, so that her limbs sprouted out like a houseplant that couldn’t be contained by its flowerpot anymore. But today she had trotted dutifully along, even at the slope in front of the house that made the father himself pant a little. She had refused to put her hand in his throughout, but had instead pattered along with her little face staring resolutely ahead, so that the father didn’t have to shorten his stride quite as much as he normally did.
The two young parents exchanged a worried glance, and the mother turned to the little girl sitting at the kitchen table.
“Is she sick?” the dad ventured.
This was a reasonable path of enquiry. Nothing about the mother’s worried expression that changed, except for a slight twinge that pulled the corner of her mouth upwards. It would have been imperceptible to anybody except the man who had known her since they were children running in and out of the Port-Louis racehorse stables together. But to that man, the twinge communicated approval at his good parenting question, proof that she thought he was a good father – or, at least, that he was trying - and he felt a little glow of pride in response.
The mother turned back to the child, who looked even tinier than she really was as she sat on an adult chair so that at the kitchen table. Her eye level was lower than the tabletop, her legs were dangling like misshapen tree branches, and her hands were upturned in her lap, as though they held an invisible bowl.
“Are you sick, Mimi? Does something hurt?”
In the slight hesitation before Mimi shook her head no, the parents seized confirmation that they were on the right track. The mother reached out for her daughter’s hands.
“Mimi, mo zanfan, dir mama - ”
The mother stopped mid-sentence as her fingers made contact with raw and peeling skin.
She quickly turned Mimi’s hands around to find that the child’s knuckles are red and peeling, zig-zagged with little lines where a couple of hours before, the teacher’s ruler had come down upon them, again and again, with razor-sharp precision.
“Mimi, what happened?”
As the father searched the Minnie Mouse backpack for any clues as to the nature of the incident, the child began to cry. The mother gathered Mimi up in her lap, making soothing noises with her tongue.
“Did you find anything?”
The teacher’s note is written on a lined page hastily torn out from a copybook. “Well, what does it say?” the mother asked anxiously, tightening her grip on the child’s body as though to protect her from whatever spell the note contained. “Read it aloud,”
The father cleared his throat and read.
The note - itself written in very approximate French – explained that today, they had worked on the alphabet. Mimi had kept raising her hand and asking questions in class. In Creole.
As the father’s voice tapered off, Mimi’s sobs paused, and she peeked up from beneath her mother’s protective embrace to gauge her parents’ reaction.
Today when she was sent to the corner after her punishment to reflect on her misbehavior, her friend Anwar had found her. Almost nobody ever wanted to play with Anwar because he always looked a little off-balance, with either a limp or a broken tooth or bruises like jacarandas blooming on his body. But Mimi was an exception to the norm, which is why he took the risk of advising her, in a hushed tone betraying wisdom far greater than his five years, to keep her knuckles, and the teacher’s note, hidden from her parents’ sight.
And so this was the warning that had sewn Mimi’s lips shut and propelled her feet along all the way home, this was the warning that had exploded into tears as her father reached for the backpack, and this was the warning that caused her eyes to now frantically dart between her parents’ faces, trying to decipher what was going on.
What she saw impacted her far more than any realization of Anwar’s prophecy ever could.
Years later, at twenty years old and halfway across the world, Mimi would remember that look with crystalline clarity but still wouldn’t have the words to describe its combination of helplessness, guilt and resignation, a kind of we knew this day would come coupled with what are we going to do now.
That look birthed a different kind of fear, because it was the first time Mimi saw her parents, with personalities as different as night and day, react in exactly the same way, and later act in perfect accord. It was perhaps the only glimpse she ever got into what their relationship might have been like as friends and young lovers, before the pressures of parenthood forged it into something else.
I swear to you: since that day, they never spoke a single word of Creole to me. Our conversations rotated between the “proper languages”: French one day, English the next, ad infinitum, right through my childhood and adolescence and early adulthood, right up to the last text message from my mother lying unopened in my inbox. I was initially glad about this linguistic rule, because it saved me from a lot of tongue-lashings. You see, my parents themselves weren’t very comfortable in either of the “proper languages”, so they were often at a loss for words when, furious over a childish mishap, they tried to explain why my most recent action was unacceptable. By the time they did find the right word, the heat of the moment had often passed, and everyone’s dignity – especially mine - was salvaged.
Later, once I was a teenager and doing well at school, I felt embarrassed by this habit. Why did they refuse to give it up, especially since both my French and English had surpassed theirs by this point? Granted, it had probably been a good idea when I was in primary school, and I was grateful for the care they had poured into my linguistic education. But what was the point of keeping this up, even – sometimes especially - in front of other people?
Now, as I enter my twenties and begin to discover for myself the unending complexities of adult life and relationships, it is sadness that I feel, more than anything else. There is so much more that my parents, especially my mother, and I could share, if not for this additional barrier every time she parted her lips to speak to me. Or maybe not – in Mauritian culture, there are many things that mothers and daughters will never talk about. Nevertheless, it might at least make the jokes funnier, the details sharper, the nuances clearer?
But every time I think of broaching the subject, I remember that look that passed through them that day across the kitchen table, and I know better than to contest their decision.
And so over the years, this linguistic oscillation between French and English has become part of the very fabric of our relationship, so much so that now I barely think of it anymore. Until this heat in my mouth – still rising, always rising – reminded me of it this morning.
Let’s stay on track.
Who else have I recently spoken to from home, who belonged to the in-between spaces of my life in Mauritius between the broad swathes of home and school and other “respectable” venues where I was consistently, insistently encouraged to speak French?
I think of the other kids living on my street, with whom I would sneak out to play catch, running around with the neighborhood dogs and clambering up mango trees. I think of the gato pima vendor outside the school gates, who was unfailingly there throughout my thirteen years of primary and secondary education, gap-toothed and grinning. I think of my grandparents, who stubbornly refuse to relocate from their big ancestral house and orchard in Vallée des Prêtres, even now that they are too old to take care of the property and it is falling into ruins.
How do you maintain these relationships - hinged on a cup of tea, a piping hot fritter, a half-eaten fruit - from a world away? Everybody has Facebook, yes. It’s not a logistical issue. The issue is rather, what do I say?
That I miss them? That I wish we didn’t live in a world where the price to pay for the best education is to leave an entire lifetime behind?
How do you put words on emotions like that? In any language?