The portal of language and culture

Updated: Dec 06, 2019, 07:59 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

From preserving a forbidden language to entering and getting immersed in a new culture, the kitchen is more than just a place to prepare food

Sometime back, I made four batches of Spitzbuben and Hazelnut macaroons in my kitchen portal to the German dialect spoken in Südtirol. Pic/ Rosalyn D'mello
Sometime back, I made four batches of Spitzbuben and Hazelnut macaroons in my kitchen portal to the German dialect spoken in Südtirol. Pic/ Rosalyn D'mello

Rosalyn D'melloFor years I've been telling people that Konkani, the language of my Goan ancestors, valiantly survived potential decimation by Portuguese colonisers. Besides the Inquisition in Goa (1560-1820), during which thousands of Goans fled south, in 1684, Konkani, the native language, was effectively banned in written and spoken forms.

"All available manuscripts were destroyed. It was a crippling blow to the language, which only began to limp back after Portugal experienced a landmark liberal revolution and loosened its grip on Goans via its new Constitution in 1822," writes journalist, Vivek Menezes in an article examining the current 'threatened' state of Konkani. He proudly enumerates how the language began thriving again when the ban was presumably lifted with Eduardo Jose Bruno de Souza launching the first Konkani periodical in 1889 and then publishing the first Konkani novel the next year. His is an extensive piece, but it does not even broach the subject of how a language that was banned from use for at least two centuries managed to evade extinction.

For years, I've been telling people that in Goa, Konkani remained alive and in forbidden circulation because it was spoken discreetly as a kitchen language. How I arrived at this theory, I'm no longer sure. I cannot offer a citation without re-researching the subject. But is it really such an outrageous hypothesis?

To cast it aside as an unconvincing proposition is to continue to advocate a sexist inclination in how we imagine histories as masculinist enterprises. To not even consider a theory like this is to continue to avoid acknowledging the expansive, unwritten accounts of women's labour within the sphere of the domestic and the subversive linguistic possibility embedded in lullabies, stories, gossip and other systems of archiving and accrual specific to female subjectivity.

My mother, who migrated to Mumbai, then Bombay, some years after the Indian army ousted the Portuguese in 1961, claiming the territory as part of the Indian Republic, made the conscious decision to speak to her children in English, which she picked up while living in the country's commercial capital, as she did Hindi and Marathi. She wanted us to learn what she felt was the language of opportunity. This means none of her four children can speak Konkani fluently. And yet, when we're together, we all speak English using the semantic structure of Konkani. It's our special pidgin language.

Each time I question my mother about her decision she tells me I'm free to learn Konkani any time I choose. "Just go live in Goa for long enough," she tells me, "you'll learn, it's easy." Funnily enough, the easiest route I've unearthed to entering Konkani is through the kitchen. Once again, it seems, I've found this to be the magical portal. Except, this time, the language I've been attempting to enter is German, spoken in Südtirol to which my spouse belongs.

In fact, it is a dialect of German that is spoken in these Alpine parts, while the culture is more Bavarian than Italian, even though we're within Italian borders. These, among many other geographical, historical, and sociological conditions, makes the South Tyrolean culinary landscape truly unique.

Sometimes I marvel at all the forces that must have conspired to place me here, to make this region a site at which I might locate my future. Three days away from departure, I find myself contemplating the sleight hand-of-god(dess)ness that has hovered over my being, guiding my footsteps.

Some weeks ago, for instance, my partner and I had to take a compulsory break from harvesting one morning because the apples were frozen. We decided to go for a coffee to Egatman bar, which we had visited several times last summer but hadn't frequented at all in autumn.

The owner, a woman, had known my partner when he was a child, she used to be his neighbour. She asked him, in Dialect, whether I was fluent in English. He, who only needs an excuse to sing my praises, spoke about how I was a published author. She was impressed. Would I consider helping her 18-year-old daughter? She had a Cambridge-level exam coming up. I enthusiastically volunteered, recognising in her the same resourceful attitude as my own mother. Her daughter and I spent two hours of the first tuition at the town library.

The next time we met, however, was after closing hours at the Egatman bar on a Saturday. I was introduced to the rest of her family, and towards the end, when I mentioned that I had agreed to The Aunt's proposition to bake some cookies for charity that would be sold at the Tramin Christmas Market on December 8, I was shown their restaurant-quality kitchen, which, for personal reasons, is no longer in use. I was encouraged to bake in their high-capacity oven.

I made four batches of Spitzbuben, a kind of jam-cookie. With the 12 egg whites leftover, I made Hazelnut macaroons. I loved that one dish engineered the other. I exulted in the interconnected nature of it all; how I had encountered both recipes in German and had sat with my partner to translate the nuances and configure my measurements.

The recipe for the Hazelnut macaroons was suggested to me by my mother-in-law, who got it from Aunt Maridl, who, when she saw and tasted the results, was full of approval.

One week into Advent and I am overawed at the thought that indeed, our individual salvation might be intricately linked to that of each other, and that selflessness is inexorably attached to the generative potential of the self. These are some of the innumerable things I have understood so far at the intuitive level of kitchen language.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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